Nathan's Top 10 Movies of 2014

Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan in Le Week-End

It's that time. What were my top ten movies of 2014? Truthfully, I could use another few weeks to see some key titles and second-guess my opinions, but that's not going to happen. Plus, in two weeks we'll be out of the country celebrating Matt's 30th birthday. (Don't tell him I told you his age.)

So, now? Yes, now's a good time.

Overall, 2014 was full of solid movies, some that pushed the boundaries of the craft and many that stuck with me for other reasons. We saw Lupita Nyong'o and Julianne Moore fly non-stop, CGI apes give new meaning to the term emotional resonance, and a reclusive nanny gain posthumous fame.

Not surprising, then, that my second tier films for 2014 included scores of titles deserving of a shout out. For my own sanity I've whittled them down to just seven honorable mentions in addition to my top ten, but I'll never forget you, The Babadook, Edge of Tomorrow, and Obvious Child (among others).

Shall we begin?

The Honorable Mentions (alpha order)

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson, still as twee and precious as ever, but with enough wit and substance to transform this into a coherent tale with a killer (no pun intended) cast.

Happy Christmas
Naturalism at its best. Melanie Lynskey at her best. Anna Kendrick at her best (since Camp). Lena Dunham at her best. Plus, a tiki bar I still covet.

Love Is Strange
A gay love story that manages to be simply a love story, even with the major tension revolving around a gay-specific problem.

Mr. Turner
I normally have no time for crotchety men who grunt their way across the screen, but Timothy Spall had me at ghhhurbtkkpthhht (spit emphasis mine).

The Skeleton Twins
A dark comedy with just a touch of magic, plus Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig at their dramatic best. And then there's this scene. No, seriously. THIS SCENE.

Stranger by the Lake
Loved the screenplay. Apparently in 2014 we have to go to a gay cruising beach to find normal people speaking to one another onscreen the way actual people speak to one another in real life. Fine by me! Just don't recommend this one to your mother.

Le Week-End
I'm a sucker for the Brits, the older the better, and Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent charm in this comedy with some of the best food scenes of 2014. They play refreshingly well-rounded older characters; they have sex lives and everything!

The Top 10

10. Citizenfour (tie)

A late-breaking entry into my top ten, Citizenfour documents the encounter of whistleblower Edward Snowden with the journalists who would unleash his secrets on the global media. Citizenfour is as tense as any narrative feature released this year. The scenes in a Hong Kong hotel room, where the parties involved rendezvous to pick apart intelligence community secrets, have an almost Mission: Impossible vibe. You sense danger around every corner, and through the windows, too. Throughout, director Laura Poitras juxtaposes ominous geometric shots with mundane tasks, until even Snowden combing his hair becomes a strangled cry in the dark.

10. Interstellar (tie)

Of any film this year, Interstellar came closest to delivering a spiritual experience. Say what you will about the overbearing score (perfectly attuned to the chaos and wonder of the story, I say), the questionable science (as solid a base in theoretical physics as any movie that dares to push the boundaries this far, I say) or the occasionally clunky dialogue (OK, sure). For me, Christopher Nolan weaves explosive imagery with a quiet humanity in a way modern filmmakers seem all too hesitant to do. His film dares to be sincere at a time in our culture when sincerity is anathema, and wrestles with the most human of all themes: our helplessness in the face of time, and the possibility that love and memory may be the best weapons against it.

9. Selma

An emotional exorcism of a movie, on par for me with Beasts of the Southern Wild, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity. Ava DuVernay's inspired direction transforms what could have been a by-the-numbers biopic into a human-driven work of art. Selma has the best ending of 2014 by far, rolling reflection and hope and despair into a complex commentary on our complex times. And "Glory" simply has to win the Oscar for Best Original Song.

8. Pride

The feel-good movie of the year, and the queer movie I didn't realize I'd been waiting for, Pride defies its audience to squelch that smile, that feeling of triumph, that celebration of good in the world, that pride. This movie is your grandmother's sweetest cookies that are somehow not too sweet. Do-gooders do good and find other do-gooders to help them do good and everyone wins and it registers as authentic because every character large and small registers as human. Nothing sappy or treacly here. And, praise gods, a movie with gay characters who aren't secret supervillains or dying of AIDS or obsessed with finding love or drugs or that next hook-up. Positively wholesome, just like Grandma's cookies.

7. Snowpiercer

Tilda Swinton's performance as Minister Mason is reason enough to see Snowpiercer, but the movie delivers sci-fi fun all the way down the line. Can we get more summer blockbusters like this, where characters have real motivations and action sequences are both breathtaking and plot-serving? Then there's the train, which seems such a perfect thematic and storytelling device you wonder why it hasn't been used quite this way before.

6. Wild

A hallucinatory ride of self-discovery, and a fine example of how to adapt memoir for the screen. Introspection without excessive voiceover? Check. Showing before telling but then telling just enough? Check. I've never had a strong opinion either way of Reese Witherspoon, but here she succeeds beautifully in portraying a broken spirit with a soldier's mentality, pushing forward at all costs because she must and, maybe more so, because there's no other option. Criminally underrated by awards voters, Wild rose to the top of the heap in the first annual CineMunchies, and I couldn't be happier.

5. Boyhood

Like Interstellar, Boyhood deals in love, memory, and time, themes sustained so far under the radar that Patricia Arquette's climactic scene seems to come out of nowhere, but nonetheless hits us full force. "I just thought there would be more," she says, and who can't relate? Yet hope lives on in Ellar Coltrane's Mason, who moves forward--sometimes, as a bump-on-a-log mopey teenager, because there's no other option, and sometimes, as a bold and terrified first-year college student, because he's ready to engage with the world.

4. Birdman

The long tracking shots, the talented ensemble, the Raymond Carver influence. There's a lot to like in Birdman. Hallucinatory in a more literal sense than Wild, the movie has much to say about our perception of ourselves and the world's perception of us. Keaton gives a brilliant performance (words I never thought I'd type), progressively stripping his character down until almost nothing is left. He reminds us that humans--as performers, all of us--stand at the precipice of madness, and that maybe looking into the void is the only way to avoid falling in.

3. Gloria

Oh, Gloria. It's a good thing Paulina García radiates a can't-look-away energy, because she appears in every frame of this movie. As a single, middle-aged Chilean woman with a wry spirit and a penchant for living life in the moment, Gloria owns the audience. And live her life she does, for a full 110 minutes onscreen. I dare you to look away. The movie never loses sight of its mission to lay bare its protagonist's humanity in the face of struggles both profound (Chilean politics) and everyday (yoga class). We see her laugh, we see her drink, we see her smoke and shoot paintballs and swing through the air on a bungee cord. And (spoiler alert) we see her, when in doubt, dance.

2. Under the Skin

Another hallucinatory film, but unlike Wild and Birdman in nearly every other sense. During my first viewing I watched, horrified, as Scarlett Johansson's unnamed character trolled the streets of Scotland on some unspoken mission, knowing that I didn't know what the hell was happening but that I couldn't look away. This movie got under my skin, to say the least. It also taught me more about my personal preferences than perhaps any film in recent memory. I like my realism, yes, but with shots of danger, sadness, and good old-fashioned horror.

1. Ida

In post-war Europe, an 18-year-old orphan about to take her vows as a nun leaves the convent to meet her one remaining relative. Ida quickly sweeps them up to jump like a pogo stick across Poland's darkened cultural landscape, approaching its themes in the abstract (white tiles, a laugh during mealtime) before touching down more concretely (a skull, a window). Succinct, and ruled by images at once vivid and stark. The best movie I've seen in years.

Also have a look at Matt's Top 10 of 2014 and the First Annual CineMunchies.