1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)
A surface reading is enough to reveal that The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most formally precise film. The temptation is to think that his attention to the detail of the titular hotel and jam-packed cast swallows up the human element entirely. But rather than the detail leaving the film cold, I feel that this story of a fictional interwar hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes giving a tour de force) serves to be one of Anderson’s most expansive and humane. I would rate The Grand Budapest Hotel alongside such films as The Great Dictator and The Rules of the Game (bold comparisons, I know, but I’m serious) in its exploration of fascism, the limits of human institutions, and power of gentility. It’s a paean to an Old World of Anderson’s imagination, but filled with memorable characters and bittersweet conclusions. The Grand Budapest Hotel is my favourite film of the year.
2. The Immigrant (dir. James Gray)
I wrote about James Gray’s contribution to the long tradition of melodramatic story telling in an essay earlier this year. Gray’s film, with its daring performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard has stayed with me all year. The film is impeccably shot, and narratively elegant, but it is those moving performances that demonstrate to the power of self-sacrificial love in a hard and punishing world that speak powerfully to me.
3. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)
No science fiction film in recent memory has managed to both awe me and move me the way that Interstellar did. Nolan continues his experimentation with cross-cutting and temporal editing, this time exploring the effect of deep-space travel and relativity on our very human notions of survival and love. Most impressively the film employs cinematic spectacle, in the best sense, not to generate fear through displays of violence, but to showcase the grand scale of the cosmos and generate a sense of awe.
4. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)
Fincher’s adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel (from her own screenplay) is perhaps the most Hitchcockian film on this list: Amy Elliott Dunne is the latest in a line of anti-heroines going back to Vertigo’s Madeleine who are both the victims of and a threat to male power. This is a deeply cynical film about a destructive marriage, but most importantly it is cynical about the way that people today present themselves and live out the roles that we take on. Both in the presentation of the media in the film and in the way that the film itself manipulates the narrative to pull the rug out from under us, drawing us in with our genre expectations and assumptions about the character types, Gone Girl suggests that the roles we play eventually play us. As one of the characters in the film notes: “How ‘meta.’”
5. Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Amongst the often goofy, postmodern noir dressing of Anderson’s adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel is a melancholy longing for connection that lends this film a deep humanity. As Doc Sportello (2014’s second great Joaquin Phoenix performance) is drawn deeper and deeper into the investigation instigated by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, he struggles to learn about himself and his own state as a hippie living out the last gasps of the impossible dream of the 1960s counter-culture as he does solve anything. Some characters are bent on self-destruction, while others scramble for redemption (whatever that means in a world that increasingly measures success materially) in this pot-addled shaggy-dog story. It’s a wonderful film, and I’m sure it will age well.
6. Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru) (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
This film got me good. As a father, and as a fan of Kore-eda’s particular Ozu-esque aesthetic, it won me over and has stayed with me since TIFF 2013. Kore-eda manages to tackle the story of babies switched at birth, a cliché with a high potential for being sentimentally manipulative, and manages to do so with formal mastery and a great deal of warmth. On the one hand the film is about whether time outweighs blood, a theme it explores through structure and form; for instance, camera movements and framing communicate the bonds between characters and how they change; but it also explores this theme in the context of contemporary Japan, and the particularity of what bloodlines mean today. Kore-eda is a director who I trust to handle any topic at this point.
7. Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)
I can’t think of another more daring and experimental film to feature a major Hollywood star in ages. Scarlett Johansson gives a great performance as a predatory being stalking the roads of Scotland picking up unsuspecting men. The fact that the men are so willing to put themselves in danger challenges and flips the expectations of male and female attraction, something that becomes even more chilling given the fact that much of the film was recorded with hidden cameras. The film’s chilling ambient score and striking images stick in your brain long after the film concludes.
8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari) (dir. Isao Takahata)
If this is indeed Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata’s final film, he has created a memorable and beautiful swan song. Adapting the Japanese fairy tale of the bamboo cutter, Takahata draws out themes from the film that resonate beyond the traditional setting, asking questions about what is a good life and the roles that women are asked to play in various cultures. Princess Kaguya is different from most other animated films, both in terms of its visual sparseness, stripping back to almost pure brush strokes at times, and in its challenging themes.
9. Chef (dir. Jon Favreau)
Jon Favreau’s film is a delight for both food lovers and those looking for a good time at the movies. Telling the story of chef Carl Casper as he gets fired from his fancy LA restaurant job and starts a food truck, the film revels in the idea of back to basics pleasures, both in food and film form. The feel good film of the year with a fun supporting cast.
10. Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)
What sets Gilroy’s film apart as a post-Michael Mann, LA media satire, is Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Lou Bloom, which is at times unhinged and other times exacting in its nuances. It reminds me of no less than Christian Bale’s performance in American Psycho in terms of how central the character is to the feel and success of the film. Nightcrawler also has a great supporting turn from Rene Russo and features truly chilling sequences that show how the media feeds the cultural desire to witness the suffering of others. It’s both a thrilling film and a cultural indictment at the same time. Paradoxical perhaps, but that’s why it works.
Honorable Mentions (A.K.A. The Next 10)
Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)
Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman)
Nymphomaniac, Pt. I & II (dir. Lars von Trier)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dir. Anthony and Joe Russo)
Jodorowsky’s Dune (dir. Frank Pavitch)
Begin Again (dir. Joe Carney)
The Dance of Reality (dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)
John Wick (dir. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch)
Life Itself (dir. Steve James)