Many of the movies that ranked among my favorites this year were things that, for one practical reason or another, I didn’t get a chance to review at length when they came out. I’ve rectified that with new pieces you can access below, along with my ten runners-up and a year-end list from Ben Sachs. —J.R. Jones
Film editor J.R. Jones
1 Ida In this black-and-white spiritual drama from Pawel Pawlikowski, a young novitiate, given up for adoption as a child and raised in a Polish convent, meets her aunt, a bitter communist apparatchik, and learns that her parents both perished during the Nazi occupation. Together they set off for the little village of Piaski to find the parents’ graves and determine how they met their fate. As the women arrive at the truth and try to reckon with it, Ida becomes a classic struggle between reason and faith, the carnal and the spiritual, hatred and forgiveness. Read the long review >>
2 Calvary In this eloquent black comedy from John Michael McDonagh, an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) is marked for death by an anonymous man who was serially raped by his pastor as a young boy; as the priest counts down the days to his murder, his conflicts with his parishioners deepen into a colloquy on the nature of sin. The premise of an innocent man taking other people’s sins upon himself turns Calvary into a passion play even as it places the movie squarely in the 21st century; the cross shouldered by the priest consists, in no small part, of all the ecclesiastical crimes now tumbling out of the closet. Read the long review >>
3 Norte, the End of History Directed by Lav Diaz, this harrowing Filipino take on Crime and Punishment runs for 250 minutes, but it never feels slow, mainly because its story—about a brilliant but jaded law-school dropout who murders a vile moneylender, and the innocent man who pays for the crime—is inherently suspenseful. Time works here as a vise, closing relentlessly on the characters as the wronged man reaches a state of moral purity and the killer gradually goes mad from remorse. Read the long review >>
4 Two Days, One Night In this drama by Belgian social realists Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, a young wife, mother, and factory worker (Marion Cotillard) learns that her coworkers have voted 14-2 to lay her off rather than forfeit their annual bonus of a thousand euros. After one of her friends prevails on their supervisor to schedule another vote, the heroine spends a long, tense weekend tracking down her coworkers one by one and asking them to reconsider. The Dardennes have always been preoccupied with predatory capitalism, and this movie is no different, exposing the endless uphill battle of getting workers to look out for each other rather than themselves. Read the long review >>
5 Night Moves Green turns noir in this suspenseful drama, about three eco-terrorists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) who blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon and then, as the pressure mounts, turn on each other. This may seem like an odd project for Kelly Reichardt, director of such quiet, bucolic indies as Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), but her assured naturalism dovetails beautifully with the unfolding crime story. Despite the unhurried pace, this is more suspenseful than any Hollywood release I saw this year (including Gone Girl). Read the long review >>
6 Last Days in Vietnam In this engrossing documentary by Rory Kennedy, the fall of Saigon becomes a microcosm for the whole agonizing history of the war, a conflict that couldn’t be won but an international commitment that couldn’t be abandoned. As the Vietcong pour into the city in April 1975, American diplomats and soldiers struggle to save as many South Vietnamese loyalists as possible from brainwashing, torture, and death at the hands of the enemy. “The burning question was, who goes and who gets left behind,” remembers an army captain interviewed in the film, which becomes a countdown of days, hours, and finally minutes. Read the long review >>
7 Joe Adapted from a novel by Dan Brown, the poet laureate of the Mississippi backwoods, this indie drama gives Nicolas Cage one of his best roles ever as the title character, a solitary badass whose kind mentoring of an impoverished teenage boy is hindered by his own violent rage. “Keep it real with Joe,” one of the day laborers on Joe’s little forestry crew tells the boy when he hires on. “Don’t never look down at the ground, look him in the face. He likes to see a man’s eyes. One-on-one.” Directed by David Gordon Green (George Washington), the movie dwells heavily on the challenge of being a man—of being both tough and good. Read the long review >>
8 The Kill Team Screened as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, this documentary provides an inside look at the U.S. soldiers who targeted Afghan civilians for murder so they could notch their rifles. Filmmaker Dan Krauss scored interviews with three of the soldiers charged, and their frank testimony provides a chilling picture of how the war in Afghanistan turned into a senseless quagmire. Our deification of the American soldier may say less about those soldiers’ sacrifice than about our own guilt over sending them off to war and forgetting about them; pressing this point, The Kill Team asks whether a soldier’s greatest sacrifice for his country might not be his own humanity. Read the long review >>
9 Everyday I thought I’d never hear the end of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, filmed periodically over 12 years to capture a boy’s maturation from first grade to college, yet this heart-rending drama by Michael Winterbottom accomplishes much the same thing with its story of an English family struggling to stay together as the father serves out a five-year prison term. Like Linklater, Winterbottom shot his movie periodically in real time, capturing the growth of the children, yet in contrast to Boyhood, which wound up being mostly about its own process, Everyday is a sharply focused story about the preciousness of each moment. Read the long review >>
10 Cheap Thrills This cagey black comedy by E. L. Katz harks back to the 70s heyday of the midnight movie, when fly-by-night geniuses like George A. Romero and John Waters combined trashy pleasures with genuinely subversive intent. Two old pals, down on their luck and drowning their sorrows at a tavern, cross paths with a wealthy couple who offer them cash prizes to execute a series of increasingly lewd, gross, and dangerous stunts. This may be pitched as a comedy, but it’s really a lesson in raw capitalism, with the couple as the new oligarchs who run this country and the two friends as the rest of us unlucky bastards. Read the long review >>
Film critic Ben Sachs
1 The Wind Rises Who would have thought that Hayao Miyazaki, the beloved animator often called the Walt Disney of Japan, would create one of the most morally challenging movies of all time? In what he promises will be his last film, Miyazaki contemplates another creative genius: Jiro Horikoshi, who designed many of the fighter planes used by the Japanese army during World War II. Horikoshi claimed to have acted in good faith, even though his creations killed countless people. Miyazaki, the great empathizer, looks at this monster and sees a man just like himself, acknowledging the potential for inhumanity that lies within us all. As nauseating as it is beautiful, this is designed to trouble us for years to come. Read the long review >>
2 Rambleras One of the most inspiring trends today is the rise of a new, distinctly female-centered art cinema all over Latin and South America. This casually profound comedy from Uruguay (which screened in May at the Chicago Latino Film Festival) not only exemplifies the trend, it feels universal and timeless like few other recent movies. Three women of different ages, all lower-middle-class and desperately lonely, befriend each other and slowly take control of their lives. Writer-director Daniela Speranza presents the “little” story as though it were the stuff of an MGM musical, decking every frame with eye-popping color and staging balletic camera movements. (This is a movie that would have made Jacques Demy proud.) Speranza spent ten years refining the script as she struggled to get the movie financed, and her effort shows: even the simplest gestures hint at years of experience, and the gentle surface tone, rather than distracting from the sense of disappointment, conveys a hard-won acceptance of human foibles.
3 Mood Indigo Michel Gondry’s adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1946 cult novel Froth on the Daydream—an absurdist tragedy whose characters remain eerily placid even as the physical world changes shape in response to their lives–is incredibly faithful to its source material, the prodigiously creative French director employing his signature handmade effects to visualize Vian’s freeform (and seemingly unfilmable) prose. It’s a creative match made in heaven: Vian was a musician, author, and bon vivant who counted among his peers Duke Ellington, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Eugene Ionesco; Gondry is a musician-turned-filmmaker who has collaborated with everyone from Bjork to Noam Chomsky. Both men are famous for their amiability and childlike imagination despite being obsessed with death and loss—one might say that both artists’ imaginative conceits represent a defense against the chaos of real life. In Vian’s novel, disaster strikes so regularly that it seems practically normal, as though the devastation of World War II had carried over into the postwar world. Updating the story to the present while retaining most of its cultural references, Gondry creates a work that feels doubly haunted—not only by the war but by the short-lived innocence of Vian’s postwar France. Gondry realizes that world in such ravishing detail that one needs to see the movie multiple times to catch everything.
4 Starred Up Like Rambleras, this British docudrama frequently evokes classic movie musicals—which seems especially audacious when one considers that it’s a realistic (and brutally violent) prison film. The colors are bold, the performances highly physical, and some of the narrative developments downright operatic. Yet the stylization never trivializes the painful truths of the film, which screenwriter Jonathan Asser based on his experiences as a therapist in a maximum-security prison. David Mackenzie’s direction is founded on a desire to visualize what prison life feels like, rather than simply illustrate what it looks like. The prisoners of Starred Up live under the constant threat of violence (from guards, other prisoners, and even themselves), and Mackenzie renders that threat terrifyingly palpable. The most surprising thing about the film, though, may be how exhilarating it is. For Mackenzie, the prisoners’ violent spontaneity represents the will to fight against a dehumanizing system. Read the long review >>
5 Boyhood This might be Richard Linklater’s most disquieting film; it’s surely the fullest expression to date of his homegrown brand of existentialism. The movie regards every character, no matter how minor, with the same poker-faced curiosity, suggesting that anyone we see could have a transformative effect on the protagonist—or that maybe everyone’s equally trivial in the scheme of things. Boyhood makes no attempt to resolve the issue; in the end the characters are left to go on living and take what comes. (When Patricia Arquette tearfully confesses, in her wrenching final scene, “I just thought there’d be more,” she’s really stating the movie’s theme.) What’s next for the subject of Linklater’s grand experiment? I can see him going on to become a successful photographer or dying of a drug overdose at 25. The movie is open-ended enough to make both paths seem plausible. Read the long review >>
6 What Now? Remind Me
Breakfast With Curtis
Both Joaquin Pinto’s personal essay-cum-philosophical meditation (which played as part of the EU Film Festival in March) and Laura Colella’s utopian comedy inspire hope for the future of independent filmmaking. Each is a home movie of sorts—made for an ultra-low budget and starring the director and his or her family and friends—yet they’re crafted with such care and imagination that they feel richer than most studio productions. What Now? chronicles a year during which Pinto participated in experimental treatments for HIV and Hepatitis C (he’s lived with both conditions for more than a decade). A masterful editor, Pinto moves between considerations of his mortality, his partner, his long career in the Portuguese film industry, and the state of the world—more impressively he makes this intricate construction seem as though it just fell together on its own. Despite the heavy subject matter and 164-minute running time, the film isn’t difficult to sit through; it proceeds like an all-night conversation with an old friend. Curtis is just as ingratiating and seemingly effortless. Set over a blissfully unhurried summer in Providence, Rhode Island, it centers on the growing relationship between an emotionally troubled preteen boy and the eccentric hippies who live next door. This situation is really a pretext for a shaggy dog narrative about the joys of communal living, the storytelling giving way to. The film recalls 30s screwball comedies in its rhythmic dialogue and spirited ensemble acting; though it takes place almost entirely in the characters’ homes, it manages to say a lot about living with people in general.
8 Jimmy P. The first American feature by French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale) is, among other things, a bracing experiment in form. Fittingly its subject is a psychoanalytic experiment that the U.S. military sponsored in the years after World War II, wherein a veteran’s hospital hired a French-Hungarian ethnographer to treat a Blackfoot Indian who suffered brain trauma in the war and had been wrestling with unspecified psychological issues for some time before that. Instead of packaging the events in a familiar dramatic narrative, Desplechin (who wrote the script with Julie Peyr and Kent Jones) adopts the structure of a case study. The movie doesn’t build to any one point; rather it burrows deeper into the characters, inspiring us to marvel at the complexity of the human mind as well as the unique historic circumstances that brought these people together. What develops between Jimmy Picard and Georges Devereux isn’t friendship exactly, but a deep professional sympathy between two painfully shy men. As played by Benicio del Toro and Mathieu Amalric–both excellent, and in very different ways—it’s one of the most thoughtful depictions of male camaraderie I’ve seen in a film.
9 Thy Womb Filipino director Brillante Mendoza is an old-school melodramatist with an acute sensitivity to the pulse of the present moment. His movies are commanding, visceral experiences, literally filled with blood, sweat, and tears. In this modern-day tragedy, Mendoza brings his perspective to bear on an impoverished fishing community that sits in the crosshairs of an unofficial war between pirates, Islamic terrorists, and paramilitary forces. The results, while certainly eye-opening, feel less like a social realist drama than a Hollywood action movie. Mendoza’s heroes are a 60-something midwife (Nora Aunor, one of the Philippines’ most admired actresses) and her loving husband of many years. Despite being an integral member of her community, the midwife is nonetheless treated like a second-class citizen because she’s never borne children of her own. The husband, desiring a child, decides to look for a new wife; he ends up destroying whatever happiness he knows. This is a devastating critique of everyday misogyny in developing societies; along with Rambleras and Ann Hui’s The Golden Era, it’s one of the year’s great feminist films.
10 Gone Girl David Fincher is the Otto Preminger of our time, a meticulous Hollywood craftsman whose painstaking surfaces deliberately obscure our understanding of his characters’ inner feelings. The director found an ideal vehicle for his art in Gillian Flynn’s best-selling mystery novel—not just because most of the characters are revealed to have hidden agendas, but because Fincher is so well-suited to examine the illusory consumerist paradise they inhabit. Ben Affleck is perfectly cast as a fashion-magazine concept of an ideal husband, a brilliant exterior in want of a personality. After he’s suspected of murdering his rich-bitch wife, Affleck must use his unctuous charm to deflect damning public opinion—his superficiality becomes the one thing that might save his life. This is Fincher’s wittiest movie since Fight Club, and like that film, it’s stuffed with pitch-black satiric touches. I’m especially fond of the CIA-worthy surveillance equipment that adorns Neil Patrick Harris’s postmodern country home and the abandoned shopping mall that’s become a dungeon for meth addicts.