1. The Immigrant (dir. James Gray)
What It’s About: In 1921, a Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) is forced into prostitution by a scheming pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) in order to save her sister from the quarantine on Ellis Island.
Why It’s Good: This film embodies the phrase: “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.” Here is a big, bold, adult story, but it’s not chasing awards or money, so both audiences and critics don’t know what to do with it. James Gray is more concerned with the lives of its characters than his ego or the objectives of the studio behind it, so no wonder the Weinstein Company abandoned this film to life on Netflix. This movie exists to tell the story of Ewa played wonderfully by Marion Cotillard, and to tell it tenderly and truthfully—not to perform some kind of external function like winning Oscars, or topping the weekend box office, or proving that the actors involved have finally taken on serious work. It transcends what we’ve come to expect from dramas nowadays: it’s a drama, not a prestige pic. It’s a beautiful film—the sepia-tone cinematography and gorgeous sets and costuming add to its aesthetic pleasures—but it’s full of ugliness, exploring desperation in an unforgiving world and grace in rotten circumstances. It’s a melodrama, but it’s full of honest emotions that pull at something essential inside ourselves. We need more films like The Immigrant, but I don’t expect to get many, so I’ll cherish this one.
2. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)
What It’s About: When Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappears on her birthday, the town and media quickly turn their attention to her philandering husband (Ben Affleck), who they believe murdered her.
Why It’s Good: I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl when I ventured to the multiplex to see this adaptation, but I trusted David Fincher to bring out this bestseller’s higher artistry like he did with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He didn’t disappoint. I expected the film to have all the signifiers of a good Fincher film: the cool colour palette, the meticulous framing and pacing, and (these days) the haunting Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score. But I didn’t expect Gone Girl to be so insightful about modern relationships and the predatory nature of the media, and I especially didn’t expect it to be insanely lurid, like a Paul Verhoeven wet dream. This is a film full of monstrous individuals, but it’s a riot. The way Gone Girl rips apart the masks we wear as individuals is exhilarating. Being told that we, as a society, are awful shouldn’t be this fun.
3. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)
What It’s About: NASA pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) embarks on a dangerous mission through a wormhole in order to save his children by finding a habitable planet for humans to colonize.
Why It’s Good: This is the kind of science fiction I’d love to see more of at the modern multiplex: ambitious, original spectacle full of imagination and genuine curiosity that takes advantage of modern technology to give us something we’ve never seen before. I like space operas as much as anyone, but I’ve missed science fiction films based on ideas and speculation and science, similar to the novels of Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert that I’m so fond of. Christopher Nolan’s science fiction adventure is fantastic in the truest sense of the word. It’s also his most emotional film, with an earnest (some say corny) heart that fuels the science adventure and weds the human and scientific aspects of the tale. This is a film that will stay with me for a long time. It captures what I want big blockbuster filmmaking to look like.
4. Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)
What It’s About: Unhinged drifter Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds his perfect vocation when he starts moonlighting as a freelance crime scene videographer in Los Angeles.
Why It’s Good: I don’t think there was a more interesting character on screen in 2014 than Lou Bloom. His strange motivational speeches that are like something he’s repeating from a business self-help manual combined with his utter lack of empathy makes for a darkly hilarious mix. I love the way Gyllenhaal stalks about the screen, wide-eyed and optimistic, hungry for gruesome footage that he can sell to make a name for himself. There’s a lot of potent satire of local cable news culture in Nightcrawler, but above all, the film exposes the can-do spirit of America and its entrepreneurial attitude that makes the self-made man a psychopath.
5. Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh)
What It’s About: A good priest (Brendan Gleeson) wrestles with the disbelief and scorn of his parish when an unknown parishioner threatens to kill him in one week’s time.
Why It’s Good: I watched this one late in the year and its power snuck up on me. Brendan Gleeson’s performance is a real treasure, and from the unbroken opening shot, where Gleeson’s priest receives confession from an unknown parishioner who threatens to kill him, I knew I was in for something special. Few films wrestle with the notion of living out faith in a secular world as well as Calvary does. The film is not just a matter of finding out who the killer is going to be and whether Gleeson’s priest will flee his troubles. It’s a spiritual exploration of how to shepherd people who not only reject the faith that drives you, but actively hate the institution you stand for. Calvary asks tough questions about faith and goodness and how to be a moral person in a bad world, and it ends powerfully without coming to any pat conclusions.
6. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (dir. Isao Takahata)
What It’s About: An adaptation of a traditional Japanese fairy tale about an elderly farmer and his wife who discover a girl inside a bamboo shoot and decide to raise her as a princess.
Why It’s Good: There is a simplicity to The Tale of The Princess Kaguya’s art style that weds perfectly with its thematic interests. This is a beautifully hand-drawn animated film about the desire to turn a simple country girl into a decadent princess, but it gets at much deeper themes about society and family expectations (as any good fairy tale ought to). It’s about the poor choice of overlooking the natural and the simple for socially-valued decadence. It’s a fitting final film for the eclectic Isao Takahata: both provocatively unconventional and beautifully old-fashioned.
7. Like Father, Like Son (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
What It’s About: Upper-class Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) finds out his son was accidentally switched at birth and wrestles with accepting his biological son, who has been raised by a working class family.
Why It’s Good: Here is a gentle drama, without hysterics or contrived character conflict. It’s about ordinary, seemingly decent people faced with a tough situation, who struggle through their choices and make bad decisions, but who always want to do the best for their families. Kore-eda is wonderfully gifted at conveying the psychological states of his characters through his camerawork—through subtle shifts in orientation or by having an ordinarily static camera move. This makes for a subtle drama with profound power. The film also has terrific child performances, which we’ve come to expect from Kore-eda. He is the current master of the Japanese drama, which is a genre with a rich tradition.
8. Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
What It’s About: During a futuristic ice age, the last survivors of Earth live aboard a train that circumnavigates the globes and structures the inhabitants into strict social classes. In response to the strict inequality, the tail passengers, led by Curtis (Chris Evans), plot a revolution to take the train from their wealthy, despotic rulers.
Why it’s Good: A wildly inventive action romp. The film seemingly reinvents itself at every turn. It starts as a post-apocalyptic revolutionary tale, but as the revolutionaries make their way down the train, and Bong invents one bizarre train car after another, from an aquarium car to an all-night rave club, the film starts twisting into a delirious thrill ride. Its story is mythical enough that it’s broad political message works, and there’s a careful mayhem to its action within its limited geography. Bong is one of the world’s best tonal chameleons (blending tones and genres within a single film), and Snowpiercer is a great showcase for the breadth and variety of imagery and themes he can conjure.
9. Enemy (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
What It’s About: A mild university lecturer (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds his life spiralling out of control when he discovers an actor who is his exact double.
Why It’s Good: Here is a dream film that would make David Lynch proud. Villeneuve is no stranger to surrealism (Maelström involves bizarre talking fish, for instance), but in Enemy he has mastered cinematic atmosphere. From the brooding sound design and haunting score, to the Tungsten-drenched cinematography that makes Toronto look like an oppressive hell, Enemy is an engrossing mindbender. It may have an internal logic to it that puzzlers can uncover, but I prefer to appreciate it as nightmare with no real answer that you’re supposed to let wash over you and hold you in its grasp. It gets at the suggestive, dreamlike power of cinema better than most films. Also, it’s got two great Jake Gyllenhaal performances for the price of one.
10. Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
What It’s About: In 1960s Poland, a novitiate (Agata Trzebuchowska) at a convent sets out with her estranged communist aunt (Agata Kulesza) to discover the truth of her heritage.
Why It’s Good: Ida is a beautiful and sad film. It’s also not an easy film. Its characters wrestle with their pasts and their country’s history, which upsets their happiness at every turn. The main character, Anna, has been isolated from the world in her convent, growing up with a total dependence on faith, but not a strong faith. The truth of her heritage shatters her confidence in an ordered world and makes the struggle to determine her own path that much harder. But the film never abandons the idea that real faith is possible (if hard) or that the world has some glimmers of hope in it. It’s also a beautifully shot film, with a justified use of the Academy aspect ratio and a knack for penetrating its characters’ impenetrable psyches through its cinematography.
The Next Ten (in Alphabetical Order):
Chef (dir. Jon Favreau)
Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman)
Jodorowsky’s Dune (dir. Frank Pavich)
Joe (dir. David Gordon Green)
John Wick (dir. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch)
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (dir. Stephen Chow)
Maps to the Stars (dir. David Cronenberg)
The Trip to Italy (dir. Michael Winterbottom)
A Walk Among the Tombstones (dir. Scott Frank)
Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)