The 10 best movies of 2014: Our critic's picks

Monitor critic Peter Rainer chooses the best 10 movies of the year. What films made his list?

Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures Classics/AP
'Foxcatcher' stars Steve Carell (l.) and Mark Ruffalo (r.).

In going back over the 250-some movies I saw in 2014, I am reminded that there was lots more chaff than wheat. What is surprising, though, is how, despite all the roadblocks facing gifted filmmakers in an ever more bottom-line industry, so much good work continues to be done.

But first, before notating my annual Top 10, I offer up my yearly preamble, complete with cavils and quibbles.

This was indubitably the Year of the Overrated. “Whiplash,” about a jazz-drumming student and his martinet instructor, is a preposterous ode to tough love, or maybe tough hate, or maybe just tough luck. It’s “Full Metal Juilliard.” “Birdman” is a hit-and-miss backstage farce with magical realist pretensions presided over by a sodden thespian played by Michael Keaton in one of those seemingly vanityless performances that often wins Oscars. (Look, he’s not disguising his wrinkles or his hairline!) The film was simulated to look as though it was shot in one continuous take. I didn’t think this stunt was such a Big Wow. 

Come to think of it, 2014 could also be called the Year of the Stunt. “Boyhood,” which I somewhat overrated when it opened, is also a stunt – Richard Linklater dramatized a boy’s life in real time, over 12 years – but at least it’s a transcendent one. It movingly conveys the mysteriousness of time’s passage.

I’m glad that “Boyhood,” certainly not a safe movie to make or market, is getting some traction with audiences. It’s becoming more and more difficult for good out-of-the-mainstream films to get the recognition they deserve.  

Critics can be a bulwark against the hype. They can champion worthy movies that don’t have the bucks to champion themselves. The ongoing glut of movie releases – often 20 or more new openings per week – has a lot to do with the fact that movies in the Digital Age, at least the non-studio movies, can be made far more cheaply and quickly than in the past. But most of these movies are in the theaters for only a week or so, to boost their online VOD (video on demand) presence or DVD sales, however dwindling. Amid this avalanche, it’s important to the future of the art of film that audiences know enough to seek out the movies that truly matter. 

As opposed to many of the years since 9/11, the year 2014 in the movies did not reflect much real-world turmoil. The economic hardships so many Americans continue to face, the Grand Canyonesque chasm between rich and poor, was not a big ticket. (Even the new “Annie” reboot plays down the rich-poor angle.) Fallout from ongoing global wars was another non-starter this year. (“Rosewater” and “American Sniper,” both less than first-rate, were exceptions, as was, of course, the Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour.”) 

A big reason for this is that, in our hyperfast, plugged-in cyberworld, a movie intending to be “timely” stands little chance of matching the real deal. And anyway, after seeing “The Interview,” with Seth Rogen and James Franco playing goofballs primed by the CIA to assassinate North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, you may find yourself grateful Hollywood doesn’t get more “political.” 

Hollywood has largely reserved its socially conscious side for retro examinations of old anguishes. “Unbroken,” a respectably staid biopic about World War II POW Louis Zamperini, inevitably suffers in comparison with “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” “Selma” – finally – brings to the screen the life of Martin Luther King Jr., although the film is more worthy than wonderful. Some of the anguishes go back a lot further – to biblical times. I’m not sure we need a Second Coming of the biblical blockbuster genre, at least not as represented by “Noah,” that daffy eco-epic, or “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which gave us a Red Sea tsunami any surfer could love. 

The superhero/comic book franchises are still open for business. I am hoping against hope that the subtitle in “Transformers: Age of Extinction” will be taken literally. I am happy that “Godzilla” is apparently not in sequel mode. Robert Downey Jr., in “The Judge,” manfully soldiered through a rare appearance not requiring encasement in an Iron Man body suit. Meanwhile, Denzel Washington, perhaps envious of the way Liam Neeson has been hogging the senior action star demographic, launched his own “Equalizer” franchise. At least he doesn’t wear a spacesuit. This is more than I can say for Matthew McConaughey, who muscles through cosmic wormholes in “Interstellar,” a movie that, for all its metababble, is essentially saying: “Love is All You Need.” 

I am grateful that the foodie quotient in movies this year was a bit less annoying than usual. True, there was “The Lunchbox” (a sweet trifle), “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” and “Chef.” (I passed on “Le Chef” – I thought it would make me too hungry.) The funniest of the foodie movies was “The Trip to Italy,” in which Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, while performing peerless movie star impersonations, once again give short shrift to the sumptuous dishes placed before them.

It was a good year for eccentric British actors playing eccentric British geniuses – Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game” and Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything.” It was a rather thin year for major female performances. This is another way of saying that major roles for women were scarce. For the most part, Hollywood still can’t figure out what to do with women other than make them adjuncts to the action, or, if it’s a comedy, make them as gross as the guys.  

I got a kick out of Eva Green’s rowdy cutthroat villainess in “300” – more so than with Rosamund Pike’s freeze-dried praying mantis in “Gone Girl” – but I suspect the female performances that will ultimately mean the most to audiences this year are Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in “Wild” and Julianne Moore as a linguistics professor with Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.” Real-world heroism trumps pulp-fiction high jinks every time. 

The best female performance I saw all year came from Marion Cotillard as a hardscrabble Polish immigrant in “The Immigrant.” Cotillard even took a leaf from the Meryl Streep playbook and learned Polish for the role. Streep, meanwhile, plays to the hilt a wicked witch in “Into the Woods.” I shudder to imagine how she prepared for it.  

My Top 10 movies for 2014, in descending order:

1. "Foxcatcher" – Bennett Miller’s true-crime drama about the depredations of a du Pont heir, played extraordinarily well by Steve Carell and costarring the equally amazing Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, could easily have been sensationalized. Instead, it’s a deeply nuanced and deeply creepy meditation on the psychopathology of the ties that bind. It’s so powerfully observed that it becomes larger than itself – an American tragedy.

2. "Winter Sleep" – So many movies are glibly referred to as “Chekhovian” that it’s a distinct pleasure to cite one that truly is. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes is an almost infinitely rich human drama set in the steppes of Turkey. 

3. "Leviathan" – Set in a remote township, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s movie expands a local conflict between a car-shop owner and a corrupt mayor into a full-scale anatomization of Russian society.

4. "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" – This is a transcendent hand-drawn animated film by Studio Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata, derived from Japanese folklore. It’s an epic of the imagination.

5. "The Immigrant" – Inexplicably dumped by its distributor, The Weinstein Company, James Gray’s flawed, operatic movie has some of the most powerful sequences of any film this year, with a fierce and luminescent performance from Marion Cotillard and re-creations of the Lower East Side that rival those in “The Godfather II.”

6. "We Are the Best!" – Lukas Moodysson’s intensely likable spree about three teenage Swedish girls who form an impromptu punk band is one of the happiest music movies ever made. 

7. "Boyhood" – Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making odyssey is a filmic experiment that pays off emotionally. The movie is saying that, in the end, what is fleeting is what stays with us.

8. "Child’s Pose" – Another astonishment from the Romanian renaissance, directed by Calin Peter Netzer, it features a world-class performance from Luminita Gheorghiu as a mother obsessed with redeeming the son who disdains her.

9. "National Gallery" – Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the famed London museum is really about the experience of art in all its manifestations.

10. "The LEGO Movie" – Yes, you read that right. It’s insanely inventive, witty. The threat of world domination has never been so much fun.

Besides the films mentioned favorably in the preamble, here are some other worthies: “Night Moves,” “Force Majeure,” “The Last of the Unjust,” “Diplomacy,” “Two Days, One Night,” “The Humbling,” “Life Itself,” “The Babadook,” “Love is Strange,” “Finding Vivian Maier,” “Locke,” “Ida,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Mr. Turner,” and “The Last Sentence.” 

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