I’ve seen around 175 new films this year, which feels like a lot, but is also nothing on the more than 900 that will have opened in theaters by the end of December. This list of the best of them is personal, but with that many theatrical releases crammed into a 12-month span, my year in moviegoing feels awfully personal too — there are definitely some great titles that passed me by, and that I’d still like to catch up with. Here’s hoping that this list may inspire you to do the same with some of my favorites when there were way too many things to watch this year.
Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall
If you haven’t seen the inventive Aussie horror film The Babadook, it’s not too late: It’s still in theaters and available on demand. Kent’s directorial debut is a spooky tale about a haunting by way of a menacing picture book, but what’s more terrifying is the way the supernatural storyline runs parallel to an utterly convincing portrait of maternal depression. Davis and Wiseman are terrifically compelling as a widow and her overimaginative little boy caught in a spiral of exhaustion, grief, and isolation that looms as large as any monster.
Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo
The way awards nominations are going, Foxcatcher is becoming Carell’s movie, but it’s Tatum’s performance as a brooding, muscly innocent that’s the heart of this dark American fairy tale. Tatum’s Mark Schultz is a disciplined, hardworking, goddamn Olympic gold medal winner. He’s also awkward, impoverished, and ignored until multimillionaire John du Pont (Carell) plucks him up as part of a training center he’s decided to fund. Du Pont’s narrative of patriotism and paternalism makes for a potent contrast with the reality of what he’s doing, which is buying himself a team of athletes in the same way his icy mother likes collecting horses.
Director: Ira Sachs
Cast: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei
New York City has never looked as bright and charming nor has it felt as briskly indifferent as it does in Sachs’ wistful movie about an aging gay couple (Lithgow and Molina, who are wonderful together) whose pleasant urban lives fall apart after they finally get married. Love Is Strange beautifully showcases how Ben and George’s loving friends and family step up to help the pair when they lose their apartment, but also how exhausting that quickly becomes for both the houseguests and their hosts. It’s a gentle, sad, nicely observed film about New Yorkers and about lovers who’ve been separated by circumstance in their autumn years, but it’s also an elegy for a city that wasn’t always so economically brutal a place to live in and love.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed
With his lean face, unblinking eyes, and self-help patter, Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) really feels like an antihero for our times — a chipper, relentlessly ambitious sociopath. Gilroy’s drama about how Lou establishes himself in the Los Angeles freelance nighttime crime footage business works so well. It’s not really a parody of TV news; it’s about how Lou’s soullessness makes him the ideal creature for this particular time, place, and industry (not to mention an admirable negotiator of fees and credit). Producer Nina Romina (Russo) may cynically sum up the type of stories her station prefers, but Lou’s the one who takes the message to heart in a way that’s monstrous and seamlessly successful — a demonic, conscience-free capitalist with a camera.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo
It would have been easy and expected to make a shiny-eyed biopic that put Martin Luther King Jr. on a pedestal and presented the civil rights movement as a remote history lesson. But DuVernay’s film is vital and relevant and focuses on a particular moment in King’s life and his process. Selma doesn’t cozily celebrate its subject’s achievements; it walks us through the work involved and the toll it exacts, both in King’s personal life and in terms of the ferocious and sometimes fatal blows aimed at the nonviolent activists he’s leading. The result is a startlingly timely movie that connects the battles of half a century ago to the continuing fight that’s bringing people out to march and protest today.
Director: Paweł Pawlikowski
Cast: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik
Ida has some of the most beautiful cinematography of the year — black-and-white, but so exquisitely lit, it looks pearly. The characters on screen — who, for most of the movie’s slender runtime, are the titular Polish teenager (Trzebuchowska) and her aunt Wanda (Kulesza) — are often framed at the bottom of the screen, as if leaving room for God or God’s absence. The feasibility of faith after the horrors of World War II is one of the major themes lurking in this deceptively straightforward, devastating story of a novice nun who reunites with her lone surviving relative. She learns she’s actually Jewish, and travels to visit the graves of their family members. What became of them is a sort of grim mystery to be solved, but the film is all about the journey, and how these two women, one young and pious, the other grown and worldly, deal with the terrible past and the return of normalcy.
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista
Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t just a fizzy jolt of unfettered movie pleasure — it manages to bring an old-school space opera sensibility into our carefully constructed contemporary era of shared superhero universes. Sure, it has action and prison escapes and some bad guy who won’t become important for another few years or so, but the true joy of Gunn’s movie is in the gleeful, geeky weirdness of its characters, who were dusted off and rescued from a more obscure corner of Marvel’s library. Freed from the burdens of public awareness, the Guardians are able to feel fresh as bickering, ragtag teammates who may end up saving the world, but who don’t set out to be heroic. And alien abductee Peter Quill (Pratt) may be the perfect sci-fi lead for our time — at once a dirtbag, man-child fan of intergalactic adventure stories and the rakish hero of one.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
The best trick Whiplash pulls off is keeping you on a knife-edge between thinking that Fletcher (Simmons) is an abusive villain and believing that he may be onto something in terms of pushing for greatness in a world in which trophies are given out just for participation. It doesn’t hurt that Andrew (Teller) can take it, that he’s willing to throw everything on the pyre in order to be the best. Maybe they’re made for each other, and maybe they’re going to whirl each other into mutual annihilation, but Chazelle niftily inserts you into their claustrophobic world and Andrew’s fixated mind-set, while making jazz drumming look just as physical and taxing as any sport.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston
Sure, you can try to follow the many threads making up the convoluted mystery at the center of Anderson’s stoner noir, adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, but it doesn’t really matter. Doc Sportello (Phoenix) navigates shady real estate deals and LAPD bullies and an ominous criminal gang, and he’s high most of the time, so you know he’s not all that worried anyway. Inherent Vice is best surrendered to as a series of hilarious, strange, strikingly filmed episodes that, together, form a surprisingly poignant, melancholy ode to the departed ’60s. The whole film is imbued with a sense of innocence lost, as neatly embodied by Shasta Fay Hepworth (Waterston), the ex-girlfriend who gets Doc into the whole mess. She’s golden and grinning in Doc’s memories, but her real-life presence turns out to be more uneasy — she feels, like the rest of the film, like a good dream slowly dissipating into the harsh light of morning.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton
Birdman is navel-gazing, gimmicky, indulgent, and never less than thrilling. It’s a high-wire act that’s the best of this year’s “I’m a serious artist” movies, and an exuberantly cinematic meditation on creation and celebrity. Riggan Thomas (Keaton) is both an arrogant jerk and a vulnerable hero, a guy making a transparent grab for legitimacy and someone genuinely trying to put something worthy into the world. His play may not be innovative, but in piecing together the look of an impossible single take (as Iñárritu’s film certainly does), it gathers momentum like a downhill racer. For all its glorious showiness, Birdman’s tender, more quiet moments may be its most memorable — like the encounter between Riggan and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) in the dressing room, and the sweet (and probably doomed) flirtations that blossom between Sam (Stone) and Mike (Norton).
Director: Isao Takahata
Cast: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is Takahata’s first feature in a decade and a half, and quite possibly his last as well. If so, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting summation to a career and a venerable brand of animated cinema — alongside Hayao Miyazaki’s 2013 The Wind Rises, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya represents the twilight efforts of Studio Ghibli’s two co-founders. Based on an old folktale, the film is done in a distinctively simple style of animation that recalls brushstroke illustration, while also being emotionally eloquent. Kaguya (voiced by Asakura) is discovered in a bamboo forest, and grows quickly into a beautiful young woman who’s spirited off to the city by her well-meaning parents. The four-hankie ending is a tremendously sad evocation of the wonder of nature and the deep regret of time lost.
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody
Encased in multiple framing stories like a nesting doll, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most intricately constructed movie yet, and that’s saying a lot. In exploring the goings-on within the once lavish resort of the title, The Grand Budapest Hotel feels lighter than Anderson’s past films — it’s a madcap caper — but it deals with darker subject matter, with death and loss lingering at its painstakingly etched borders. Zero (Revolori) is a refugee, multiple characters are murdered, and the fictional country of Zubrowka teeters on the brink of a world war in which Nazi-esque forces arrive and drape their banners all over the hotel’s lobby. The Grand Budapest Hotel is filled with nostalgia for a moment that never really existed, one that, even in the movie, is always slipping further away. In its old grandeur, the hotel has already been given a grim Soviet renovation, and the frothiness of Anderson’s concoction, with its funiculars and pastry shops and secret societies of concierges, conceals some very complex feelings.
Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée
Sandra (Cotillard, in one of her two stunning performances this year) isn’t scrappy. She isn’t tough. She’s depressive, embarrassed, and apologetic, the type who seems like she’d give in before ever being asked. When the factory at which she works figures out a way to indirectly fire her via a group vote, she’s visibly crushed by the decision — but she can’t just accept it, because the isolation of being out of work may very well kill her. And so she fights, taking her weekend reprieve to try and convince her co-workers to give up the bonuses they desperately need in order for her to keep her job. The Dardennes’ movie offers up the hardest-won triumph of the human spirit possible (without an ounce of phoniness) when some of Sandra’s colleagues tell her to go to hell and others offer sacrifices they can’t afford.
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Kryštof Hádek
Under the Skin has been stuck in my head all year like a song I can’t stop humming — it’s fantastically other, like its heroine. Glazer’s eerie, often wordless movie about an alien (Johansson) who takes a human form to troll the streets of Glasgow for male victims isn’t just uniquely disturbing, it confronts the very idea of what we do at the movies: watch. The film’s signature repeated sequence — in which the alien strips and walks away from the camera while whatever hapless man in her thrall follows her, erect, to his doom — is a hypnotic depiction of desire used to lure someone to their death. We see the alien from the point of view of her victim, and then we see her afterward, all business as she picks up her clothes, the lust one-sided, the alien herself an unknowably otherworldly being. It’s not until the second half of the film that we actually get a sense of her, as she changes, slowly going from predator to someone forlornly curious about humanity. It’s a delicate transformation that’s unforgettably tragic.
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