Let's start with a simple fact. I haven't seen nearly everything released in 2014. The New York Times' Manohla Dargis counts the number of films that received at least a cursory release in the US this year at nearly 1,000, a number that not even the most dedicated of film critics could hope to attain.
But scratch seeing everything. I haven't even seen most interesting things. There are films from some of my favorite directors, like Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, that I haven't caught up with, as well as gigantic entertainments I just haven't fit into my schedule, like Big Hero 6. What I'm saying is take all of this with a grain of salt. It will almost certainly look very different a year from now. Or even a week from now.
What these are, then, are 10 films I would unreservedly recommend from the year 2014. It wasn't as good of a year as 2013 or 2012, but I still found myself with around 30 movies jostling for a position here. And that's not bad at all.
Here are 10 of the best films I saw in 2014, presented alphabetically.
The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent): Many of the best horror films work because the terrors of the film are somehow even worse if the supernatural isn't involved. There are few better examples of that than The Babadook, an Australian ghost story that doubles as a haunting tale of mental illness. Essie Davis plays a single mother, struggling to hold on to what little of her sanity she has left amid a long series of sleepless nights and days plagued by her terror of a son. And that's all before the bogeyman of the title starts knocking around. Some have ripped this film for not being "scary" enough, but the big jolts aren't the point. This is a movie about the creeping sense that you, yourself, are the worst monster of all.
Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater): This lovely little coming-of-age tale might have become the victim of overhype. When it was simply an underdog indie movie with a great gimmick at its center, it was irresistible. Now that it's become an awards winning juggernaut, there's some understandable fatigue around it. But the best way to approach the film is as if you know nothing about it. Yes, it was filmed over 12 years, as the two children at its center grew up. And yes, every one of those 12 years is on screen. But to watch this movie progress is still a magic trick if you can find a way to enter it as purely as possible. There's never been anything like it, and it's the sort of thing only a great movie can pull off. (Read my review here and five things the film gets right about Texas here.)
Godzilla (dir. Gareth Edwards): Wait. Please stop laughing. I mean this sincerely. Yes, the human characters are underdeveloped. But that's also sort of the point. Gareth Edwards's spin on Godzilla emphasizes just how powerless human beings ultimately are in the face of nature, and it slowly cedes all control of its narrative over to the big guy in the title, battling against giant spider creatures for supremacy over San Francisco. This was a summer of beautifully directed blockbusters, but none were so beautiful as this one, filled with evocative images that suggested perfectly what it would be like to be in a major city in the midst of a giant monster attack.
Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher): I've written more about this than any other film released in 2014, and with good reason. This was the movie to discuss and argue about and pillory and defend this fall. Whether you loved or hated its whacked out, gonzo excesses, you had to sort of admire how it could get just about everybody who saw it to take an extremist position on either side of those debates. Above all, though, this film succeeded because it only seemed to be a tale about a woman whose husband may or may not have killed her. From that pulpy beginning, the movie became a treatise on modern marriage and an ultra-bizarre feminist manifesto. It was a delight. (Read my review here and a later, spoiler-filled piece on the film's feminism here.)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson): Wes Anderson, whose intricate contraptions of films hide bittersweet centers, created perhaps his most intricate contraption yet in this spring release that went on to be his most successful film at the box office. At times, the film's central setting (a lovely European hotel between the World Wars) seems a wind-up toy, which Anderson can unfold to reveal all manner of tiny dolls moving through its confines. But in the film's final passages, it reveals itself to be something much sadder, much more monumental. It's a story about the fundamental inability of anything to last forever. And, yes, we all know that's true, but Anderson seems to feel it more acutely than most and translates that to the audience.
Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy): A gloriously nasty bit of business, Nightcrawler is a dark satire of the journalism business that feels like it crawled out of the primordial ooze of 1992 and deposited itself in our modern movie theaters. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal in the performance of the year (literally), the story follows a young opportunist who finds himself chasing footage of crimes, crashes, and disasters, the better to sell to local news stations. After all, "if it bleeds, it leads." But Nightcrawler is about so much more than that. It's about how amorality can sometimes be a boon if you're willing to follow it into the dark. It's about twisted romance. And it's about Los Angeles as a glittering jewel of destruction, waiting to corrupt souls.
The Overnighters (dir. Jesse Moss): A documentary packed as full of twists as any narrative feature, The Overnighters is a searing, moving portrayal of the limits of kindness and charity. North Dakota Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke opens his church to the many men drawn to his state by the oil boom who are unable to find work and just need somewhere to sleep. This simple action ends up reverberating throughout his community, as more and more people take issue with the kinds of people Reinke is extending his charity toward. Should there be limits to this kind of Christian compassion, particularly when it's put to the test in the real world? The Overnighters is both brilliant storytelling and brilliant journalism, but it's also a kind of modern moral fable that just happens to be real. (Read my review here.)
Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay): This is not typically the sort of movie I enjoy. Big historical docudramas that attempt to capture important moments in time too often fall flat under the weight of their own hubris. Not so with Selma, making it seem all the more miraculous that this is the first major motion picture about Martin Luther King, Jr., to be made at this scale. Yet Ava DuVernay's deeply moving film takes King out of the history books and resurrects him for an era when the intolerance he battled against seems to have revealed newer, nastier faces. The conclusion of Selma is as cathartic as anything you'll see in a movie theater this year, but it doesn't suggest, for one second, that the work King began is over. (Read my review here and interviews with DuVernay and the film's star David Oyelowo here.)
Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer): A spectacularly weird and even alienating film, Under the Skin forces the contemplation of what it means to be human by making its protagonist someone who is decidedly ... not. As The Woman (the only name she is given), Scarlett Johansson is riveting, portraying some sort of alien interloper on the planet Earth who seduces men, takes them back to her place, then consumes them in a manner utterly unlike any you've ever seen in a movie. (To say more would be to spoil it.) This is not a film for everybody. There's no conventional plot to speak of, and the ending is hard to take for how rapidly it tries to shift audience's allegiances. But this is a movie that's all about the experience and the visuals and the weird, eerie ride. And on those levels, it over-delivers.
We Are the Best! (dir. Lukas Moodysson): A blast of joyous, punk rock anarchy, this Swedish film is one of the best crowd-pleasers of the year, following three young girls who start a punk band in '80s Stockholm. It goes about as well as you'd expect, but the fun of this movie is in following the characters as they discover just how wonderful it feels to express themselves. There aren't a lot of examples of pure, unfettered joy on this list, but there's lots of it in We Are the Best!, and even if it's at the end by the accident of alphabetization, it feels like it's the perfect capper to a year that could be a little dour.
13 more: Blue Ruin; Coherence; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Edge of Tomorrow; Ernest and Celestine (technically a 2013 release, but essentially no one saw it then); Foxcatcher; The Immigrant; The LEGO Movie; Obvious Child; Snowpiercer; Two Days, One Night; Whiplash; Winter Sleep