The 50 Best Movies of 2014

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The 50 Best Movies of 2014

There are great years in film, good years in film and not-so-good years in film. Time will tell where 2014 will fall on that spectrum, but one thing is undeniable—it was the most historic year in film we’ve had in a long, long time. Much of the evidence to back up that claim can be found in two of our favorite movies of the year—our Film Woman of the Year directed the first studio picture ever about Martin Luther King Jr. (and will almost certainly become the first African-American woman director nominated for an Oscar), and our Movie of the Year arrived when one of our greatest masters finished a thirteen-year process and showed us his masterpiece. Those two, and 48 more of our favorites, make up the list that follows. Enjoy!

50. Dear White People

While Dear White People anchors its perspective in the struggles of its black leads, it argues that racism is a universal issue—or that, at least, dealing with the implications of racism, rooting it out at its source, is a personal task for every single human being to undertake. Who hasn’t, at one point or another, felt like they didn’t fit in with their peers? Who doesn’t feel the tug of social pressure when they’re in school? These aren’t questions about racism, but they do inch us collectively closer to targeting the very deep-seated core of what it is that still makes racism so prevalent today. Simien stumbles in the third act thanks to an amalgam of plot complications (a stroke of simplicity could have smoothed over Dear White People’s landing), but maybe a diluted ending would have glossed over the truth at the film’s core: that race politics are more complex than pretty much any one of us realizes. —Andy Crump

49. Happy Christmas

Intimate is an overused word when it comes to describing films, yet no word better suits Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas. Shot on film and mostly improvised, the short (82 minutes) movie is more a family portrait than a feature film, and it’s as cozy, destructive and loving as a Christmas Eve Reveillon. Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Joe Swanberg) are happily married. The former stays at home with their two-year-old son while attempting to work on her second novel. Everything seems status quo until Jeff’s sister Jenny (wonderfully and frustratingly portrayed by Anna Kendrick) takes residence in their basement as she tries to figure out her own life. Fresh off a breakup and looking for a new start, Jenny’s still in arrested development. On her first night in the otherwise peaceful house, she blacks-and-passes out at a friend’s party. Her influence on the household is disruptive, sometimes for the better (reminding Kelly why she liked to write in the first place) and negative (endangering basically everyone in the house with some ill-timed late night cooking). Most of the film is shot in the house, which has the warm glow of the holidays seeping through every hallway and tiki bar lining it. Always understated but dripping with the reality of helping family members—and the difficulty of loving certain ones—Happy Christmas doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like a photo album. —Travis Andrews

48. The One I Love

The dark insecurities that reside inside even the happiest of marriages—issues of trust and fading passion—are given playful yet thoughtful treatment in The One I Love, a comedy-drama in which a couple learns more about each other than maybe they should. Strong performances from Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are the highlight of a movie that may make married people nod in recognition but also shudder a little, too. Charlie McDowell (author of Dear Girls Above Me) and screenwriter Justin Lader have managed to upend a few romantic-drama clichés to find new ways to express how none of us really knows our spouse—or ourselves, for that matter. —Tim Grierson

47. Citizenfour

Few documentaries have cameras rolling as history is being made. But director Laura Poitras found herself in the middle of momentous times while making Citizenfour, which takes us behind the scenes as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden works with (among others) journalist Glenn Greenwald to expose the organization’s systematic surveillance of everyday Americans. From the worried initial meetings in a Hong Kong hotel room to the later fallout across the globe, Citizenfour has the rush of a thriller, humanizing its subjects so that we see the uncertainty and anxiety coursing through them, along with the guts and indignation. _—T.G.

46. Finding Vivian Maier

When Vivian Maier died at the age of 83 in the spring of 2009, those who had known the woman remembered her as a nanny with a humorously stiff gait and a penchant for taking photographs. In the short time since Maier’s death, her narrative has been radically rewritten, her striking street photography celebrated in exhibitions from Los Angeles to London. That such a private, peculiar woman could retroactively be recognized as one of the best photographers of the last 50 years is a testament to the untold great art being made under our collective nose. It’s an enticing story, and it’s breezily told in Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary that examines her path to the posthumous spotlight. —T.G.

45. Blue Ruin

Occasionally, the national news will carry stories about a horrific local murder that took place in some part of the country where we don’t live. And because it happened somewhere else, possibly far away from any major cities, maybe we make assumptions about the sorts of people who live there—negative assumptions. We stop seeing these individuals as being like us—instead, we view them as some kind of weird “other.” And so we turn off our empathy and count our blessings that we don’t live wherever “there” is. What’s so striking about Blue Ruin is how writer-director Jeremy Saulnier both plays into those dismissive assumptions while also subverting them. His dark revenge tale flaunts its small-town strangeness, but it also keeps a sharp eye on the human beings at the story’s center. Blue Ruin may occasionally be midnight-movie lurid, but not at the expense of deeper questions about vengeance’s diminishing returns. —T.G.

44. Guardians of the Galaxy

Director (and co-writer) James Gunn has taken the somewhat obscure team (obscure to non-comic book fans, at least) and kept the source material’s tone, attitude and bombastic settings intact. As the self-named Star-Lord, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) presents viewers with a pretty irresistible amalgam of Han Solo, Mal Reynolds and Captain Kirk. (Pratt owns this role.) The scene-stealing duo of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) also provides the latest reminder of how convincing mo-cap-aided CGI has become. (Within moments after being introduced to them, I was yearning for a Rocket and Groot buddy picture.) Frankly, it’s hard to compete with Quill, Rocket and Groot, but Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) don’t need to shine as brightly—unlike The Avengers, one doesn’t get the sense each team member’s time center stage is being meticulously measured. Marvel’s rambunctious entry into the space opera genre—and the cornerstone of its “Cosmic Marvel” roster of characters and storylines—so perfectly embodies what the preceding months of hype and hope foretold that even its weak points (and it has its share) feel almost like unavoidable imperfections—broken eggs for a pretty satisfying omelet. —Michael Burgin

43. Whiplash

It’s easy to celebrate musical genius after the fact, overlooking the endless early years of struggle, self-doubt and maniacal dedication that went into making artistry that seems effortless. Happily, that’s not the case with Whiplash, which thoughtfully considers talent’s emotional and physical toll, and for most of its running time this character drama remains ambivalent about the sacrifices needed for greatness. If a young hopeful ends up to be Charlie Parker, then the pain was worth it. But what happens if he doesn’t? —T.G.

42. The Babadook

The Babadook presents us with a barren world. Nary a soul wanders through the frame without Kent’s explicit permission, all the better to emphasize Amelia’s increasing isolation. Kent takes no false steps, and her sense of self-possession is refreshing. There isn’t a single detail displayed here that isn’t essential to the story. We are very much involved with Amelia’s ordeal, and as things go from bad to worse to petrifying, the visuals envelope us in their impeccable simplicity. The film’s spartan approach to world-building works beautifully, buttressed by a depth of catharsis more than the volume of its frights. Make no mistake, The Babadook is utterly terrifying, but it’s also intimate, touching and, above all else, heartfelt. Call it horror, call it melodrama, call it what you like—this is a great film. —A.C.

41. Top Five

The chief thing to know about the film is that it’s hilarious, as a comedy made by Rock should be. Almost as important is that it’s heartfelt. Rock uses the opportunity to reflect on his own personal and professional travails; he leans on his biting wit, offering few pleasantries in Allen’s quest for respectability. Top Five has tender times, but the film’s sentiment usually gives way to rawer moments involving, among other things, Brown’s relationship with her boyfriend (Anders Holm), Allen’s misgivings about getting hitched, the family he left behind for Hollywood and, yes, those rare occasions that unintentionally mimic the current events on our televisions today. —A.C.

40. Rich Hill

Cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo grew up in Missouri near the economically depressed town of Rich Hill, which has about 1,300 residents. Their documentary focuses on three young people in Rich Hill, but more broadly Rich Hill is a portrait of poverty and diminished dreams in America’s heartland. Tragos and Palermo force us to see these residents in their unvarnished surroundings, but rather than mocking or patronizingly ennobling them, Rich Hill simply asks viewers to question our prejudices. It’s a modest ambition rendered with great feeling. —T.G.

39. Le Week-End

Undeniably, Le Week-End has much in common with Before Midnight (and is capable of weathering such comparisons extremely well). However, where Richard Linklater’s film benefits considerably from the audience’s 18-year familiarity with its central characters, Michell and Kureishi rise to the considerable challenge of imparting three decades of minor victories and major disappointments in the space of a briskly paced 90 minutes. As we’re constantly uncovering new facets of Nick and Meg, they never cease to fascinate us, particularly when they’re at one another’s throats. —Curtis Woloschuk

38. Last Days in Vietnam

Rory Kennedy’s pointed documentary Last Days in Vietnam doesn’t deal with much of that political turmoil that steamrolled the country, or the notion of right and wrong or Red versus Red, White and Blue; instead, it chronicles a very narrow slice of the war—the time after the Paris Peace Accords when the United States had officially exited the war and the ensuing dilemma that faced U.S. forces remaining in Vietnam, particularly what to do about the allied South Vietnamese who faced certain peril at the hands of the oncoming North. What she has rendered is so subtly poignant it sneakily stays with you—the true test of an effective documentary. Her effort sheds new light and understanding on a dark chapter in American history. It also serves notice about a promising filmmaker whose name stems from the American legacy itself. —Tom Meek

37. Joe

Director David Gordon Green’s latest effort, Joe, is a poetic, unexpectedly tender slice of underclass drama that also exudes a certain kind of metaphorical connection to the low-lying fog of economic desperation that presently holds so many in its grip. An adaptation of the late Larry Brown’s 1991 novel of the same name, Green’s film centers on Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old Texas kid whose father (Gary Poulter) is a shiftless, alcoholic lout. Near-homeless and hungry, both figuratively and literally, Gary hooks a job with Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage), a strong-willed ex-convict who isn’t really a role model but — out of necessity and by degrees — begins to assume that mantle. Not entirely unlike Prince Avalanche, Green’s last film, Joe is a work of plaintive portraiture and, broadly speaking, a movie about confused men finding their way in the world. Cage and Sheridan (The Tree of Life, Mud) have a great rapport, and the veteran actor in particular delivers a magnetic, dialed-in performance, his most layered of the last several years. —Brent Simon

36. Gone Girl

Arriving with boatloads of hype — “new Fincher film”, “based on the bestselling novel” etc., Gone Girl had high expectations to meet, and it delivered in a big way. Director David Fincher and company seem to have been set on making a “movie to talk about” and they succeeded. People loved the movie, people hated the movie. Is it a feminist statement? Is it misogynist? Is it misanthropic? The film is fun, in part, because even when watching it, there is a collective sense of the uncomfortable conversations about men, women and relationships it is going to inspire between men and women in relationships. The “cool girl speech” became a meme and when your movie instantly inspires a meme, you know that you’re onto something. Author Gillian Flynn adapted (and some say “watered down”) her own novel about a complicated missing persons case into a screenplay that asks difficult questions, doesn’t spoon feed answers and, instead, gives the audience something unpleasant to chew on. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike deliver rich performances leading a terrific cast of supporting players including Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry — yes, that Tyler Perry. —David Greenberg

35. Foxcatcher

If on the surface this is a story about men seeking intimacy through unadulterated physicality, at its core, Foxcatcher is about people searching for something missing from their lives. Du Pont is terrorized by his placid, elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in a small cameo), the severe matriarch of his wealthy family who does not approve of his wrestling ambitions. Mark is searching for a father figure, someone to lead him out from the shadow of his older brother. Of course (spoiler alert for those not familiar with the true-life story), all this leads to a final, definitive, deadly confrontation. The film doesn’t go out of its way to explain why this tragedy occurs, instead allowing the performance of the actors to provide all the clues that are needed. The conclusion is practically a given, but this is hardly the point. Despite reveling in Carrell’s Oscar hype, Foxcatcher doesn’t seem interested in the confrontation itself, or the weirdness of the men at that point, but the loneliness and the primal forces that made sure they’d get there, in the end, no matter what. —Jonah Flicker

34. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely

Sometimes seeing a first film a promising new filmmaker, you feel like they’re springing forth fully formed, as if from Zeus’ head. Think about Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs, or Steven Soderbergh with Sex, Lies, and Videotape. But other times, the excitement comes not because they’ve reached the destination, but because they’re still getting there. It’s more like watching Nadia Comaneci go through warmup stretches and knowing you’re about to see something truly transcendent. Watching Josephine Decker’s first two films, released simultaneously, feels a lot like the latter. They’re provocative, fascinating films in their own right, to be sure. But what’s exciting is seeing her stretch those muscles out, experiment with form and style, process her influences (Terrence Malick perhaps primary among them, but directors like Joe Swanberg, David Gordon Green and Shane Carruth also seem to be important). Because just the way she warms up, you know she’s got a masterpiece in her. —Michael Dunaway

33. The LEGO Movie

The two key components that keep this film fresh and delightful all the way through are the LEGO animation and the LEGO characters themselves. There are so many wonderful LEGO performances going on that some actually outshine the main storyline. In particular, the Good Cop/Bad Cop character (Liam Neeson) is hilarious to watch, as is Unikitty (Alison Brie). The LEGO Movie may not elicit the same timeless emotions as, say, the Toy Story franchise, but it is a wonderful trip into a limitless childlike imagination, and it will inspire creativity from children and recall years gone by for adults. —Maryann Koopman Kelly

32. The Raid 2

Though its full title is The Raid 2: Berandal, Gareth Evans’ sequel to his 2011 beat-to-a-pulp-a-thon, The Raid: Redemption, could just as easily be called The Raid: Unfettered. While the hyper-violent martial arts maiming moments will elicit about the same number of appreciative chuckles as the first, in his new film, Evans has cast off the spatial and temporal constraints that so defined his earlier effort. The Raid: Redemption can be viewed as a single, extended action set piece. Shorn of pretty much everything else but the action, the plot unfolds in a brisk 101 minutes as an elite police unit tries to dislodge a crime lord from his 15-story, henchman-infested apartment building (and then tries to survive when the attempt goes awry). Meanwhile, The Raid 2 spans more than three years and spreads the pummeling, slashing and occasional hammer-time throughout myriad locations. (The film puts on about 50 minutes in the process.) As a result, Evans’ latest unwittingly serves as the converse of the adage, “Less is more.” More, it turns out, is indeed less—though not by much, and not to an extent that is likely to bother fans of the original. In fact, though the addition of “extras” like multiple locations, a larger cast of non-fodder characters and oh, actual dialogue, makes The Raid 2 much less unique a film than its predecessor, it still registers as a pretty vibrant entry into the Yakuza genre. —M.B.

31. Only Lovers Left Alive

Almost all of this vampire drama is set in the dead of night, and Jarmusch and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux vary the tone of their nocturnal scenes. Sometimes, the nights feel menacing. Other times, they recall the sleepless evenings left staring at the ceiling, wondering what happened to your life. And then on other occasions, the movie has a seductive, romantic spirit. The stakes may not be particularly high in Only Lovers Left Alive, but that’s part of Jarmusch’s point. When immortality is a given and your only concern is finding fresh blood, your life in some ways loses its urgency. And so like the movie they’re in, Adam and Eve drift and drift, finding their amusements where they can. —T.G.

30. Love is Strange

So many films are made up of wonderful scenes with an end result that doesn’t really add up to a compelling whole. Love Is Strange pulls off this tricky task with aplomb. It is full of breath-taking beauty, both visual and thematic, and the score, largely comprised of Chopin, is the perfect accompaniment. The penultimate scene just may be the most affecting you’ll see this year. Lithgow and Molina give two extraordinary performances, and Sachs directs them with painterly skill. This one sticks with you. —Mark Rabinowitz

29. It Felt Like Love

With It Felt Like Love, writer-director Eliza Hittman takes a few routine subjects—the coming-of-age story, sexual awakening, adolescent confusion—and reminds us that a confident directorial voice can make material this common appear as fresh, strange, and surprising as a good science-fiction story. Hittman has made some well-received short films (2010’s Second Cousins Once Removed, 2011’s Forever Gonna Start Tonight), but this is her debut feature, and her command over everything—performance, style, tone, imagery—announces her as a noteworthy new filmmaker. She herself invokes Maurice Pialat and Catherine Breillat when describing her influences in this genre, but her fascination with skin and bodies also owes a debt to Claire Denis. But these inspirations neither overwhelm the material nor lessen Hittman’s achievement—if anything, they highlight the fact that the American indie scene is in desperate need of more female directors who can approach this thematic territory with such formal and psychological curiosity. —Danny King

28. Calvary

When Brendan Gleeson gets together with John Michael McDonagh, magical things happen. The two first teamed up in 2011 for the black comedy, The Guard, which, though it gets dark when it needs to, showcases Gleeson’s easy charm, humor and ability to absolutely take control of the frame. He’s proven time and time again that he’s one of the best and most underappreciated character actors working today. Their latest collaboration, Calvary, takes a different approach than their last endeavor, but is no less impressive, illustrating again that Gleeson is equally adept in the lead of this character study as in any supporting roles. —Brent McKnight

27. The Zero Theorem

The Zero Theorem is at its best when it’s slyly comedic, mixing clever visual gags with its mysterious plot. When it pushes things, the tone becomes unstable, and the philosophical content falls short. At times shallow, at others nonsensical, the movie fails to build up to achieve anything truly revelatory. This can certainly be frustrating, but if you’re watching closely, you won’t be bored. —Jeremy Mathews

26. Life Itself

Life Itself may tell the story of a remarkable life, but it’s at its most enlightening when dealing with death. Steve James’ documentary on Roger Ebert naturally chronicles its subject’s exploits, trials and triumphs as he became the most recognizable film critic in the United States. But it weaves his life story around footage shot during the last months of his life, as we see the effect his impairments and mortality have on him and his loved ones. Ebert often professed his love for documentaries that unfold in a way the filmmakers couldn’t have predicted when production began. He surely would have loved this one. —J.M.

25. Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner doesn’t offer a Turner totally transformed by his experiences, which may prove to be a defining testament of its director. Almost 72, Mike Leigh has earned a reputation for stubborn, principled filmmaking, following his own muse without much concern for the shifting cinematic trends around him. Watching the irascible, talented Mr. Turner, one can see a lot of Mr. Leigh in him. And if this is a self-portrait, notice how unglamorous it is: Turner is no saint, and his physical deterioration in later years is viewed starkly. (The final images aren’t even of Turner, but rather two crucial people in his life, whom he treated very differently.) What we do in this world will perhaps outlive us, but once we’re gone, we’ll have no way of knowing. This is the potentially dour note on which Mr. Turner ends. Only an artist like Leigh could make that so poignant, thought-provoking and oddly life-affirming. —Tim Grierson

24. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Matt Reeves, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes a Shakespearian approach to the familiar franchise with surprisingly successful results. The film is set ten years after the AZL-113 virus has exterminated 90% of the human population. One group of surviving humans has taken refuge in an abandoned shopping center in the heart of San Francisco. While the humans hold on to what’s left of their dignity, Caesar has established a thriving Ape colony in the redwood forests of Marin. Conflict arises when a band of humans tries to repurpose an old dam located in the outskirts of ape country. What follows, of course, is a whole heck of a lot of conflict between the apes and the humans … and between the apes and other apes … and between the humans and other humans. What really makes this movie zing, however, is Reeves approach to Ape politics. His depiction of what is essentially a fantasy culture never feels corny or campy; it’s subtle, authentic and really intriguing. —Leland Montgomery

23. The New Girlfriend

The intimacy of female friendships and the unpredictable ways that people grieve are at the core of The New Girlfriend, but its surface is focused on sexier, kinkier matters. A superb psychological drama, the latest from French filmmaker François Ozon (Young & Beautiful, In the House) threatens to go campy at any moment but instead is dark, erotic and thoughtful. This may not be what most people would expect from a movie about a cross-dresser, but the surprises don’t end there. —T.G.

22. Selma

The right movie for the moment, or the right moment for Ava DuVernay’s new movie? Either way, Selma will be read by many in context with 2014’s slew of civil rights outrages and race-fueled atrocities, but even in a post-racial world, this film has punch. DuVernay has no stomach for bland hero-worship in her biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (here portrayed in an inspired, and inspiring, turn by a never-better David Oyelowo), and instead invests her narrative in a specific time during the Civil Rights Movement. Her focus – the 1965 march for voting rights – gives her movie a sense of purpose, toward which it marches with impressive discipline. Come for contemporary importance, stay for the earnest, impassioned filmmaking. —A.C.

21. The Green Prince

Director Nadav Schirman took a gamble when making his third feature: he assumed that his subjects and their intertwining stories were fascinating enough to sustain 90 minutes of what is essentially a documentary about two men talking. He assumed correctly, because The Green Prince builds the same levels of psychological tension one could find in any spy thriller, all the while offering a rare look into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is informative without being didactic, confident without bias—through only two viewpoints presented clearly, Schirman illustrates a magnificently bigger picture. —J.M.

20. Still Alice

Julianne Moore gives one of her best performances as a 50-year-old author and professor whose life is shattered by early-onset Alzheimer’s. Filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland transcend TV-movie and disease-of-the-week platitudes to hit at something real about family, love and death. —T.G.

19. A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year marks writer/director J.C. Chandor’s third feature film in four years. Aside from demonstrating Chandor’s remarkably prolific nature, the film also further establishes the New Jersey-bred filmmaker as one of the most versatile on the market. Indeed, A Most Violent Year may be his most conventional outing to date, but that’s only because his debut film (Margin Call) centered on the complex machinations of the recent financial crash while his follow-up (All is Lost) was basically a one-man show with little to no dialogue. This time around, Chandor turns his eye to the corrupt, violence-filled New York City of the early ’80s. The story centers on Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant-turned-aspiring-heating-oil-magnate whose attempts at expanding his business land him in hot water with the government, the banks and the local Mafia. As the central character, Isaac is nothing short of extraordinary, channeling the kind of subtle, yet evocative characters perfected by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in their ’70s heyday. Equally great is the supporting cast, which boasts Jessica Chastain, David Oyewole and an unrecognizable Albert Brooks. And while the film’s deliberate pacing and understated nature may be a deal breaker for some, those who stick around will be rewarded with a beautifully crafted, if chilling portrayal of how the pursuit of the American Dream can slowly transforms into a nefarious journey into the heart of darkness. —Mark Rozeman

18. The Unknown Known

Over the last 10 years, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has been preoccupied with the methodology behind warfare, specifically investigating the mismanagement of American armed conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq. With the exception of his fascinating 2010 crime doc Tabloid, his output over the last decade has been a sober postmortem on our recent overseas failures: The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure, and now The Unknown Known, which is the best of the bunch. Where his earlier documentaries looked at aspects of the military mindset, his newest feels nearly definitive, putting a face to hawkish policies. That face belongs to Donald Rumsfeld, who was Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006. Considering that he’s such an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, Morris might be expected to demonize his subject. Blessedly, The Unknown Known is far too thoughtful for such a knee-jerk treatment—or, perhaps more accurately, Rumsfeld has too sharp a mind to be railroaded. Instead, we have a glorious battle of wits, with Rumsfeld masterfully responding to his inquisitor, often with direct, considered answers.—T.G.

17. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Pronouns abound in Ned Benson’s affected, but haunting trilogy revolving around the breakup of a marriage in the wake of an attempted suicide. The 2014 entry Them was said to have been a Weinstein Company follow up idea after Benson exhibited the Him and Her versions in 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Rigby is no Rashomon, but the different POVs, and most pointedly Them, gives “we” or “us” deft insight into the rise and fall of a once perfect marriage, all sparked by different views of a single tragic event, and all stems outwards from there. As the aloof, fragile and resilient Eleanor of the title (and yes she was named after the Beatles song), Jessica Chastain adds to her body of piquant and nuanced works. Much is asked of her and she responds with aplomb. James McAvoy on the other hand as Eleanor’s wide-eyed and adoring hubby, Connor, is effective, but more of a one-note plot point. The supporting cast, which includes William Hurt and the exquisite Isabelle Huppert as Eleanor’s parents, Ciaran Hinds and Viola Davis as Eleanor’s college professor and soundboard, are exceptional and go a long way to add depth to the central relation mired in angst and miscommunication. —Tom Meek

16. Manakamana

A completely beguiling look at how we behave during those mundane moments that are in-between the seemingly more important ones, Manakamana couldn’t be simpler in its execution, and yet this is a documentary that radiates incredible compassion and insight. Produced by the directors of last year’s brilliantly assaultive documentary, Leviathan, Manakamana couldn’t be more different, utilizing a similarly uncompromising approach but one that’s far more contemplative and lovely. If Leviathan showed us the primal terror of everyday life, this new film is a warm hug, a salute to our shared humanity. There’s so much going on around us all the time, but we’re too busy getting to our next destination to ponder that simple truth. Spray and Velez force us to slow down and consider that truth. We humans get so wrapped up in this idea that our activities and events define us. Manakamana suggests quite persuasively that only at rest do we truly and fully reveal our essential natures.—T.G.

15. Child’s Pose

Though it may have lost some of the white-hot critical faddishness it enjoyed in the mid-2000s, Romanian cinema remains one of the new century’s most consistently rewarding national movements. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are still its high-water marks, but there’s been no shortage of superb follow-ups in recent years, including Beyond the Hills and Tuesday, After Christmas. What these films share is a barebones depiction of modern life—usually rendered over the course of a few days or less—through plots that are deceptively simple and actors whose well-worn faces are so descriptive that they silently convey a world of regret and discontent. could almost be a “greatest hits” of Romanian tendencies, but its distinctive resonance is such that it transcends familiarity. As with the best of his countrymen’s films, director and co-writer Calin Peter Netzer’s family saga possesses all the sharp everyday detail, close-quarters drama and nuanced characters of a terrific play. But as is also often the case with Romanian cinema, Child’s Pose elevates the commonplace with superb, almost invisible filmic technique, staring at its characters with such intensity that the ordinary becomes surprising and insightful.——T.G.

14. A Most Wanted Man

This is Corbijn’s most ambitious project—his debut was the quite fine Ian Curtis biopic Control—and he does an excellent job of provoking steely performances from a large cast. This is some of McAdams’ best work in far too long—tough and compassionate at the same time—and even an old pro like Dafoe seems to be reaching down a little deeper to produce something memorable. A Most Wanted Man may be less flashy in design than Corbijn’s first two films, but in its place is a terrific sense of bitter resignation that seeps through every frame. The spy game hasn’t gotten any more thrilling in the wake of 9/11, only more urgent and tense. And as this movie argues, in such an environment trying to be the good guy may end up meaning precious little at all. —T.G.

13. Pride

From its first frames, Pride opens itself wide to scrutiny: this is based on a true story. We’re used to this, of course. We turn to the cinema for escape, but by invoking REALITY the so-called “true story” breaks the illusion we’ve sought, and in turn, we feel it’s our obligation to call the veracity of every single element on the screen into question. Heartfelt speechifying, noble human gestures, lifelong struggles against adversity: when a film purporting to be true douses these idealistic pursuits in a sheen of Hollywood glitter, it’s hard to take that film seriously—let alone not resent it. Two hours of being willfully manipulated hardly sounds like a good time at the multiplex. Which makes Pride kind of remarkable, because unlike so many other attempts to translate honest-to-goodness life to celluloid, it refuses to take itself too seriously. —A.C.

12. Night Moves

Director Kelly Reichardt makes intimate character studies that are less interested in plot than they are in observing individuals in a specific time and place, whether it’s middle-aged men trying to reconnect on a camping trip in Old Joy or a group of settlers heading into the West during the 19th century in Meek’s Cutoff. Perhaps that’s why Night Moves feels so startling. Though Reichardt’s usual close attention to character and atmosphere is intact, her new movie is surprisingly suspenseful. By her understated, incisive standards, it’s practically an action movie. The film draws much of its suspense from its ability to ground the proceedings in a realistic, everyday world. Much like Meek’s Cutoff or Wendy and Lucy (which starred Michelle Williams as a drifter searching for her beloved lost dog), Night Moves is compelling not because of its story’s startling originality but, rather, because of its bone-dry simplicity, goosed along by Jeff Grace’s softly anxious score. As per norm, Reichardt’s unfussy style elicits unadorned, casual performances, and her three leads easily convey their characters’ committed but somewhat shallow motives for destroying this dam. We’re riveted because these people feel incredibly lifelike, which makes their high-stress mission all the more nerve-racking. There’s more than a little Crime and Punishment pulsing through Night Moves, but Reichardt is only mildly invested in the crime or the punishment. Instead, her increasingly intense and troubling moral thriller is a portrait of thwarted idealism that’s suffused with guilt and regret. The characters may be able to get away with their plot, but they can’t outrun themselves.—T.G.

11. Ida

She thinks her name is Anna. The young orphan woman (Agata Trzebuchowska) lives in a convent in Poland in the early 1960s, convinced she wants to become a nun. But before Anna can complete her vows, the convent’s Mother Superior directs her to make contact with her only living relative, her mother’s sister, Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Anna does—and in the process discovers how little she understands about her own life. Ida is a touching, low-key story about Anna’s personal transformation, one that’s flecked with wry humor but also sadness. Trzebuchowska is a nonprofessional actor, and director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth) focuses the drama on his actress’s unvarnished, burgeoning beauty—there’s an innocence and stillness in her expression that suggests that Anna at an early age has learned to be quiet and listen.—T.G.

10. Two Days, One Night

Sandra takes time off from her job for health reasons; in her absence, she’s made redundant, and her coworkers reap a not-insignificant bonus as a result of her firing. The latest work from the brothers Dardenne is a work of compassion, but Two Days, One Night is as much about our sympathy for Sandra (played with heartbreaking brilliance by Marion Cotillard) as it is about posing questions of ethics. As Sandra drives all over town in an effort to convince her coworkers to give up the bonus pay in exchange for her reinstatement, we wonder how we would respond to her pleas. It’s an easy thing to judge the people we meet throughout the film for their reluctance, but in telling of Sandra’s plight, the Dardennes invite us to examine our own convictions. —A.C.

9. National Gallery

National Gallery focuses on problem-solving and theory, which proves to be a fascinating juxtaposition. On one hand, a museum is a business that has to worry about economics and marketing—but on the other, its mission is grander, connecting us with our cultural history as well as our political history. But Frederick Wiseman never beats us over the head with these observations: We glean them from the footage he compiles, in which the daily business of running a museum is undertaken with crisp precision. In this way, National Gallery is itself open to interpretation as much as the paintings on display are. There are far more questions and suggestions in National Gallery than there are firm answers—about the meaning of art or anything else. And in kind, Wiseman (as is his wont) doesn’t show any interest in judging what he sees. As he’s done with several of his recent films, the man lends a sympathetic, slightly detached perspective to National Gallery, portraying a sense of a place, its mission and its struggles. —T.G.

8. Inherent Vice

The fog that envelops Inherent Vice might bring to mind the old expression “thick as pea soup.” But that’s not quite right. Sometimes it’s like cotton candy, at others like ominous smoke. Paul Thomas Anderson’s drug-fueled detective odyssey depicts the end of the 1960s in a way that’s both mournful and madcap; coherency isn’t a priority—or even intended—in this tale of an era of endless possibilities coming to a close. Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is both unnervingly surreal and pliably, affably keen to take every detour possible on the road from A to B. While its gags are ingenious and plentiful, heady themes rise from the madness: some good for laughs—the culture war is at the forefront of the story, and Anderson isn’t beneath milking a chocolate-covered banana’s phallic qualities as a hippie-hating authority figure devours it—and some, sometimes the very same themes, conjure up a distinct melancholy in the same breath, as in how the ideal of free love gives way to disturbing sexual dynamics. —J.M.

7. Enemy

The chance to portray twins or at-odds characters in a single film is catnip for actors of a certain level of ambition, though not without potential pitfalls. The impulse to chew scenery or present grand differentiation is often difficult to resist. Enemy, though, which reteams Jake Gyllenhaal with Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve (though it was actually shot before that film), finds the actor trading in similarly subdued and thoughtful tones as he did in that kidnapping drama. And, adapted from the late Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago’s 2004 novel, The Double, the film offers up more than just a meaty pair of roles for Gyllenhaal. A woozy, danger-infused rumination on identity that triggers tripwires of personal panic and awakened sexual compulsion, Enemy is like a cold glass of water to the face of cinematic formalism. —B.S.

6. The Overnighters

The experience of The Overnighters is about so much more than just what does or doesn’t drive Reinke. It’s about what’s happening in America right now, how we can have as many abstract discussions about economics, the environment, crime and punishment, and religion as we want, but that these abstract ideas have real impacts on real people. —Geoff Berkshire

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

The relationship to Anderson’s influences—how and maybe even why he makes his work—is what this film is all about. There are direct allusions to films that have popped up frequently in Anderson’s oeuvre: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Man Escaped, L’enfance nue and many Lubitsch films. But more importantly, the film seems to be about his relationship to directors (and also writers) that have influenced him. Gustave, with his dandyish and shy hard-living ways, may be a stand-in for Anderson, but only the way that the Amex “director” character of his commercial, modeled on outlandish heroes, is Anderson. “To be frank,” Mr. Moustafa says of Gustave, “I think his world vanished long before he entered it.” In this first film in which Anderson has sole screenwriting credit, he seems to be everyone. He is also, of course, the Author, both in the form of the man who is telling this tale, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and his fictionalized self (the Jude Law character) that met his characters and lived among the ruins. But Anderson is also Zero Moustafa, an eager apprentice to his hero. In the most poignant line in the film, Moustafa says about his mentor, “After all, we shared a vocation.” The same line could be said of Anderson and all the directors he references. —Miriam Bale

4. Under the Skin

It’s a rare feat for a film to successfully convey the voice of the Other. Especially when that voice is an Other to everyone else here on Earth. Loosely based on Michel Faber’s book of the same name, director Jonathan Glazer’s take on Under the Skin finds greater fascination with translating an otherworldly perspective than with the novel’s rather transparent “meat is murder” didactic. It not only makes for a more interesting story, it takes the form of an experience that reminds one of why the medium of film is so special. —Scott Wold

3. Miss Julie

I’m not sure why I was so surprised that Miss Julie was one of the best movies I saw all year. It’s directed by a legendary actress (Liv Ullmann). Its two supporting characters are played by two actors that are very rarely not interesting (Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton). And the lead role, one of the most legendary lead roles in the history of the theatre, is played by the greatest actress alive (you heard me), Jessica Chastain. And the screenplay? Only written by August Strindberg. It’s a long, torturous, emotionally brutal movie. I never want to see it again. but there’s no denying it’s a masterpiece. —M.D.

2. Birdman

Above all else, Birdman is tender, raucously funny and deeply tragic. The final qualifier just proves that this is an Alejandro González Iñárritu film, but Iñárritu is operating on a new level here. This is intimate, personal stuff, perhaps his best effort since his first, 2000’s Amores Perros—or at least his most passionate, for more than just the director himself. The film at times reads like a dedication to Keaton’s work in Tim Burton’s Batman movies, and an admonition against the indulgent comic book rumpuses Thompson is supposed to have helped invent. There sure are a lot of pictures about caped crusaders out there, but don’t even the most over-the-hill superheroes deserve a chance to fly anew? —A.C.

1. Boyhood

Of all the achievements in Richard Linklater’s career, perhaps what he will be best remembered for is his depiction of time. Dazed and Confused chronicled teenage life with precision, but his Before trilogy showed how the passage of time shapes and changes people in ways that they can’t see, precisely because they’re on the inside, lacking the necessary perspective easily available to us on the outside. Now with Linklater’s new movie, Boyhood, time is examined in a new, incredibly moving way. As is Linklater’s custom, Boyhood is profound in such a casual way that its weighty themes feel nonchalant, effortless. This movie might make you cry for reasons you can’t quite articulate. You won’t be alone in feeling that way.

Because of the ambition of the project and the amount of years it covers, Boyhood might initially seem underwhelming. By design, Mason’s life isn’t particularly momentous, and there are no major revelations or twists. Instead, everything that happens is a matter of gradation—say, for example, how Mason begins to develop an interest in art or how his mother’s partners start to repeat similar patterns of behavior. These moments aren’t commented on—they’re simply observed—and one of Boyhood’s great attributes is its generous spirit. Linklater, who also wrote the script, doesn’t care about indulging in soap-opera melodrama to elevate the drama because he’s too busy being jazzed by the casual flow of life. There’s enough going on with most people that he doesn’t need to invent incidents.

Without even necessarily intending it, Linklater in Boyhood has fashioned a rather lovely vision of modern America, and it’s telling that Mason’s story starts a year after 9/11. In a sense, the world of Boyhood is the world the rest of us have had to negotiate right along with him. By the time Boyhood ends, no grand resolutions have occurred. Mason will keep living his life, and so will we. But by observing the everyday with such grace, Linklater allows us the opportunity to do the same. There are few better gifts a filmmaker can give his audience. —Tim Grierson