1. Under the Skin– Music video veteran Jonathan Glazer proved to be 2014’s most indelible image-maker. The director’s follow-up to 2004’s underrated Birth proved to be even more audacious a statement, a cult classic in the making. Teaming with wiz-kid multi-instrumentalist Mica Levi and DP Daniel Lantin, Glazer’s masterpiece is about being outside one’s own environment, prowling through a nocturnal cityscape trying to feign connection. Seen through the eyes of Scarlett Johansson’s stalking, seductive alien, the everyday feels extraordinary. Familiar environments (the beach, a shopping mall, a nightclub) appear ominous; sounds, such as a baby’s distressed cries, or a group of excited women on their way to party, seem strange and terrifying. The first half, especially, is an ambitious depiction of a de-realization experience; the world is three-steps ahead, everything is out of touch, the body and mind forever trapped in an inexplicable waking dream.
It’s easy to get caught up in the score and visuals of Under the Skin, but there is a story that emerges here with any number of ostensible interpretations. Glazer’s film forgoes the didacticism often associated with science fiction, though, preferring to keep his images impressionistic and the story shrouded in ambiguity. In turn, his movie is one of the most moving and deeply empathetic works to come from the genre. Although unquestionably feminist, it has numerous pervasive ideas: systemic dehumanization, the effects of loneliness, the futility of attempting to understand the external world and the self. And for a guy who has only made three features, all of this is handled with remarkable assurance—taking pages from the handbooks of Kubrick, Grandrieux, and Roeg, Under the Skin somehow remains entirely its own beast. One can only imagine where a talent as formidable and evolving as Glazer will go next. But if his latest ends up being a career-best, his one major contribution to cinema, it’s surely enough to label him one of the greats.
2. Goodbye to Language 3D– There are two groundbreaking shots in Jean-Luc Godard’s three dimensional treatise on sex, capitalism and violence in the digital age. The first shows a woman standing over a man’s shoulder as he looks at a book; she’s pulled away by an angry lover, and one of the cameras follows her. The other remains on the scholar, which splits the 3D image so that one eye focuses on him, and the other on them. That is, until the boyfriend pulls a gun and she becomes annoyed and returns to the man with the book, breathtakingly reuniting the image.
The other shot utilizes a similar visual device, dividing and then reuniting a 3D shot, this time with the two naked lovers in the home where they spend much of the movie. Of course there’s more, a lot more, packed into Goodbye to Language‘s astonishing, head-warping 71 minutes. There are musings on Hitler and a discussion on gender equality that occurs while a man grasps a woman’s hips and takes a shit. There’s a simple, gorgeous shot of a woman washing her hands in a leafy fountain, contrasted by a later shot of a man’s head being submerged in bloody water by a similar hand. There is an extended reenactment sequence that shows Mary Shelley writing on a piece of parchment, the sound of each letter scratching with a painstaking deliberateness. It’s one of the few shots Godard holds for longer than a few seconds, another memorable one being a gorgeous 3D close-up of paint as a brush is smeared around in it. Though the bickering couple and Godard’s dog Roxy make up much of Goodbye to Language’s collage of miscommunication, acts of artistic creation like these come through with beautiful clarity.
3. Gone Girl– David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s film adaptation of Flynn’s bestseller begins as a standard if self-aware crime procedural about a man (Ben Affleck) who finds his artificial charm used against him after his wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing. (Here is the 10,000th spoiler alert you’ve read for this movie) It only gets sicker from there; once Amy Dunne’s sinister plan is unveiled, the story begins a casual transformation into a darkly comic domestic drama with twisted pulp worthy of comparisons to Paul Verhoeven or Brian De Palma.
Procedural detective stories and talking head crime shows don’t really prepare you for a character like Amy. One of the most intense and interesting movie debates of the year centered around whether or not her character was sexist. Nick Dunne is certainly a casual misogynist, but does the movie share that philosophy even as it destroys him? It’s a complex question with passionate arguments made for both sides. Part of what makes Gone Girl so cruelly entertaining is that it wants to make the characters squirm almost as much as the audience, and it has no comfortable answers. Fincher, the evil genius of the digital revolution, creates a web of enflamed pundits and misinterpreted selfies that gleefully ensnares Nick in a modern media circus. Amy is much more aware of the ever-present cameras, so of course she’s the victor.
4. Only Lovers Left Alive- Jim Jarmusch’s latest is an exquisite, effortlessly cool ode to vampires, Detroit, Tangier and letting yourself be surprised. His vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), are geniuses who despair over the lack of sophistication they see in us modern “zombies.” Their love story is a slow-burning one, and the way they look at, talk to and touch each other conveys a centuries-old familiarity (or, entanglement). Most of the movie revolves around their reunion, as Eve travels from Morocco to the Motor City to lift her depressed lover’s spirits.
Only Lovers Left Alive’s second half introduces some semblance of a traditional plot, as Eve’s immature sister (Mia Wasikowska) intrudes on their brooding and drains a hapless human of his blood. For the most part, though, Jarmusch remains a keen, dryly humorous observer of these elusive creatures’ everyday lives. Swinton and Hiddleston are quietly excellent here, and the movie’s nocturnal beauty is made hypnotic thanks to an electronic score by Jozek Van Wissem and Jarmusch’s band Sqürl.
5. Night Moves- Kelly Reichardt’s moodiest film is also her most accomplished—no small praise given her uniformly excellent career. Yet Night Moves made few people excited this year, and it’s difficult to understand why. Although undeniably more accessible than something like Meek’s Cutoff or Old Joy, critics acted as if Night Moves contained only a vestige of Reichardt’s trademark subtlety. In reality, the plot, as in all of her films, is quite minimal: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard (Josh, Dena and Harmon, respectively) star as environmentalists plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam—a radical decision to make their voices reverberate through America’s technological haze. The quietly suspenseful first half is a slow-burn through the methodical (sometimes humorously mundane) process leading to the event, while the second deals with the devastating psychological effects.
As their dedication to the cause and feelings toward one another become increasingly ambivalent, the characters descend into anxiety, grief, and eventually, violence. While the film, especially in the first hour or so, contains some of the most thrilling sequences of the year, the small, haunting details linger the most and elevate the film to something much more troubling (Josh brooding in the corner at a party, alone; Dena developing a severe skin rash from stress and paranoia). This is a major work that asks many, mostly unanswerable questions: What drives people away from communal protesting and peaceful activism? How do we deal with the malaise of existing in a world moving at its own pace? Reichardt’s film is many things—an exceptional thriller, character drama and horror film.
6. Boyhood- At this point, the twelve-year making of Boyhood is just as discussed as the finished product. And why shouldn’t it be? Much of the emotional impact of Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age opus is reliant on those steadily aging characters being shot with an aesthetic sameness. It was shot on film in the midst of the digital revolution, which allowed the look to remain consistent as Mason and the young actor who plays him, Ellar Coltrane, grew from an elementary schooler who plays with a dead bird in the dirt to a college freshman who thinks he knows the answers to Life’s Big Questions.
Boyhood is fueled by nostalgia for the recent past. That is mostly triggered by Mason and his sister Samantha’s growth in relation to mainstream pop culture; she dances to Britney Spears to annoy him, they attend a Harry Potter book launch, his hair changes with every new iteration of the iPod. Its appeal is not universal, and anyone who claims this takes too much stock in their own personal relationship with the movie. Watching Mason age in such a quick timeframe was undeniably moving for me (Matt), and it feels destined to be a movie that I’ll watch at different points in my life and see in a vastly different way.
7. Stray Dogs- Arguably the greatest working filmmaker, Tsai Ming-liang reaches his apotheosis with Stray Dogs, his best film since 2003’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, and, discounting his hour-long Journey to the West, perhaps his last feature film. (But let’s hope not!) Unsurprisingly, his impeccable eye for affecting, geometrical compositions and his trademark long takes have only strengthened and lengthened with the transition to digital. There are shots in Stray Dogs that are simply astonishing, brimming over with otherworldly beauty. If all this was in service of weak material it wouldn’t matter as much, but the film also feels like a culmination of every idea the director has been exploring since his debut. Much of the idiosyncratic humor in past work has been replaced by an all-encompassing bleakness—the film is about a family living in poverty, and the tone rarely rises above despairing. But if viewers can handle the unrelenting subject matter, they’ll be treated to a deeply humanist experience, and a declarative final statement if there ever was one: here are my characters, here are their struggles, listen and understand.
8. The Unknown Known- Errol Morris’ strategy in his documentary about Donald Rumsfeld is almost as squirm-inducingly funny as Gone Girl: he turns a man’s tacked on charm and talking points against him. With the former Secretary of Defense’s onslaught of non-answers, excuses and digressions, Morris depicts a genuine heart of dishonesty and blithe unawareness. His monologues and memos defending, among other things, torture and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, become the shovel he uses to dig himself into a comical, infuriating hole. The movie’s key image (and the one on its poster) is Rumsfeld’s goofy, dismissive grin. Maybe he agreed to the documentary to try to clear his name, but he winds up using a language of pure deceit rather than confronting anything substantial he’s questioned about. That says more about him than a simple grilling would have done.
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel- Look, it’s one thing to be unappreciative of Wes Anderson the Aesthete (It’s still tough to fully understand, though; he’s one of the most fun “mainstream” directors around, while still retaining a rigorous and daring formalism), but it’s another to be dismissive of the painful truths alongside the dizzying affectations. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the antics of his zany characters now beget violence, and the trauma of war seeps its way into the labyrinth narrative. The saddest of all the director’s films is also the film most likely to put off viewers not totally sold on the director’s complex aesthetic: mattes, miniatures, and whimsical color schemes are put to full use—so much that it may be easy to overlook the melancholy so vital to this story. The haters will latch on to The Grand Budapest Hotel as further evidence of a first-world hipster at the helm; fans will argue it as a work of genius. Anderson, apparently, wouldn’t have it any other way.
10. The Immigrant- The immigrant at the center of James Gray’s melodrama is a Polish woman unaware that the American Dream is a false promise. Ewa (Marion Cotillard) arrives in New York with her sister, and is separated from her almost immediately. Alone in the Promised Land, she is nervously coerced into the service of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a deceptive businessman attempting who gently forces her into burlesque and prostitution. What separates The Immigrant from a standard period piece is the absence of affectations: the dialogue is blunt and filled with urgency, and everything is steeped in opium-imbued, sepia-tinged languor. Gray deploys a number of simple, haunting close-ups of Cotillard’s face; her unrelentingly sad eyes tell their own story of a life of great pain as a new one begins to unfold in front of her.
11. Listen Up Philip- Jason Schwartzman is almost too perfect as the title character in Listen Up Philip: a successful author with a severe narcissistic personality. Alex Ross Perry, who is responsible for The Color Wheel, the greatest indie film of the decade thus far, turns in a work that, if less hard-hitting than his last film, is even more ambitious in its literary aspirations. Perry is an honest-to-goodness writer, through and through, and the script for his film is filled with venom and humor. Even if one is unfamiliar with Philip Roth’s life and work, which this film apparently draws its inspiration from, it’s still wonderful to watch Perry’s take down of sociopathic male intellectuals. It’s quite obvious much of the movie is drawn from personal observations and experience, perhaps even an auto-critique. The great irony, of course, is the people this film will probably appeal to belong to the same superior camp as Philip.
12. Abuse of Weakness- The French master Catherine Breillat took a break from her feminist retelling of fairy tales to make this semi-autobiographical body horror film. In the year’s best performance, Isabelle Huppert plays an on-screen version of the director, who suffers a stroke in the opening scene and eventually winds up losing much of her money to a conman. Abuse of Weakness progresses like a half-formed memory, as Breillat recreates on screen the surreal, absurd and devastating things that happened to her after her own stroke in 2004.
13. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely- Josephine Decker stormed onto the independent film landscape with two stunning, visually singular features, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. They’re both well worth seeking out, but Mild and Lovely, technically her sophomore effort, is the more accomplished film. Decker and cinematographer Ashley Connor create staggering, elemental images in the telling of a seemingly simple tale about a man who finds himself in the middle of a demented game while working on a farm one summer. This is a film of deceptive natural beauty whose farmland is besieged by the sloppiness of human lust and violence.
14. Concerning Violence- Göran Olsson’s latest powerfully examines a history of colonial rule in Africa through video clips and text from Frantz Fanon’s classic, The Wretched of the Earth, read by Lauryn Hill. Those wary of Olsson’s film misinterpreting Fanon’s witing as endorsing violence, which many, including Jean-Paul Sartre, have done, can rest easy. The film makes it clear, through its often reprehensible footage of rich, white, foreign masters, that Fanon only saw violence as an inevitable outcome of colonialism. Nothing about this legacy, and any before or after it, is easy to take or understand— Concerning Violence, a rich and academic essay film, is the same, and necessarily so.
15. Nymphomaniac- Those walking into Nymphomaniac expecting an erotic experience probably aren’t too familiar with Danish director Lars von Trier. His hardcore four-hour opus centered around Joe, a self-confessed nymphomaniac, isn’t the easiest to take, and is an experience most will either love or loathe. Unabashedly heady, with allusions to classic literature and fly-fishing metaphors, this is the work of a filmmaker unafraid to take big, bold risks—much more than a punishing experience (though it is occasionally that), this is von Trier having fun with his reputation; making the movie he’s always wanted to.
Five runner-ups: Ruben Östlund’s hilarious, hypnotic Force Majeure is a precise deconstruction of gender norms set at a lavish ski resort in the French Alps. Closed Curtain is a remarkable, haunting meta-commentary about director Jafar Panahi’s 20-year filmmaking ban in Iran. Death and sex do a seductive dance On Grindr Pond in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake. Jesse Moss’ heartbreaking documentary The Overnighters shows both the ironic cruelty of a small Christian town and the pastor who tries to accommodate those who come to North Dakota desperate for fracking work. The alternately sharp and gooey Obvious Child is Gillian Robespierre’s debut feature about a comedienne who decides to get an abortion.
Editor’s Note: As with the 2013 list, there are several films that would likely be included here had they opened theatrically in Michigan before the end of the year. While 2014 films like Inherent Vice, Selma and Winter Sleep will still be reviewed if and when they open here, they did not release in time to make this list.