The Year's Best Films
1. Boyhood The deceptively simple idea behind Richard Linklater's magnum opus was to shoot a few days a year for twelve years, and thus capture the growth and development of a middle-class Everyboy (Ellar Coltrane) and his family. Linklater's restrained but lyrical approach captures the rhythms of life as well as the rhythms of conversation (the writer-director's career-long stock-in-trade), eschewing melodrama in favor of the deeply relatable. Patricia Arquette proves particularly moving in her embodiment of modern American motherhood, complicated by career and financial struggles and divorce but defined by unwavering love. Above all, Boyhood gently presses us to reflect on the relentless passage of time and the accretion of our own character.
2. National Gallery With typical rigor, 84-year-old documentarian Frederick Wiseman turns his lens to the London museum. Like last year's At Berkeley, National Gallery works brilliantly as a prismatic look at an institution but also a deeply thought-provoking Socratic lecture on the role and function of some key issue in our social fabric (then: education; now: art). Three hours of all-access footage reveal closed-door meetings and behind-the-scenes restoration work, as well as views of the displays and docents and programs that are the Gallery's public face. Without ever making overt commentary (the film pointedly lacks narration), Wiseman forces us to abandon assumptions and consider what's useful and meaningful about the Old Masters and what's best and worst about the inherently compromised preservation and presentation of them.
3. Leviathan Andrey Zvyagintsev's drama inspired by the Book of Job specifically depicts modern Russia's runaway corruption but also captures universal fears about the shaky ground on which we construct our lives. A family's home stands in the way of the building plans of a corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov). The struggle over the property shares time with other causes for despair (infidelity, loss of loved ones), with no one emerging unscathed—if only from Zvyagintsev's savage social satire (keep an eye on that pompous priest). Gorgeous cinematography seals the deal of this haunting look at how power corrupts within cities and within personal and business relationships.
4. Under the Skin Yes, Scarlett Johansson gets naked in this adaptation of Michel Faber's 2000 novel, but she also gives one of her finest performances as an alien among us. Director Jonathan Glazer mirrors her cool observation with his unnervingly calm approach to the alien's serial hunting of horny men, and understatement when it comes to the meaning we're meant to derive from it. The result hybridizes science fiction and nature documentary, regarding the animalism of predatory consumption and sexual drives, but also the ineffable spirituality of love, which plays its own mysterious role in the survival of the fittest.
5. Only Lovers Left Alive Just when you thought there was nothing left to say with vampiric metaphors... Writer-director Jim Jarmusch delivers another eccentric, profoundly personal but broadly fascinating statement about the wacky ways we live. Both drily funny and earnestly accusatory about the state we've put the planet in, this Romantic tale of two vampires (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, both superb) just trying to live their eternal lives amid the "zombies" that are modern citizens amuses, scares, and moves while arguing that only love and art are worthy pursuits to fill our hours.
6. Mr. Turner Ever-brilliant character actor Timothy Spall outdoes himself as curmudgeonly painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's latest lived-in period piece. Impeccably researched and realized—while leaving room for improvisatory spontaneity—this portrait of the artist captures his contradictions, particularly his capacity for tenderness (most notably toward his father) versus his tendency toward grunting self-absorption. Cinematographer Dick Pope paints with light his own astonishing landscapes as we ponder the wellsprings of Turner's genius.
7. Stranger by the Lake This unblinking look at gay sexuality in its specificity, and sexual desire in general, gradually takes the shape of a thriller. Writer-director Alain Guiraudie is unsparing in his dissection of sexual politics, which become the filter through which he and we view and understand the characters at a lakeside cruising spot: a gay man (Pierre Deladonchamps) content to fulfill his appetites without attachment, the self-professed straight man (Patrick D'Assumçao) who befriends him, and a killer who mirrors for both men the dark undercurrents neither wishes to contemplate.
8. Citizenfour Laura Poitras' exemplary Citizenfour shares with us the privileged access whistleblower Edward Snowden granted to Poitras and Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, thereby humanizing a man previously seen mostly in iconic terms. The resulting extraordinary "you are there" document of history unfolding evokes the paranoid thrillers of the post-Watergate years while offering a fresh perspective on our national debate over justice as it concerns NSA overreach, the government's almost entirely unchecked power over the individual, and our complicit acceptance of those terms.
9. Inherent Vice Paul Thomas Anderson's ambitious adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel (the first to make it to the screen) proves ticklish and thoughtful, indulging goofily in a purposely impenetrable Philip Marlowe-style private-detective mystery, commenting about the powers that be in American culture along the way, and arriving at a heartfelt intimacy as concerns its recognizably befuddled hero (Joaquin Phoenix, masterly as usual). And there's no underestimating the pleasure of one of the best ensembles of the year (including Josh Brolin doing Jack Webb, woman-on-a-pedestal Katherine Waterston, and the always brilliant Benicio Del Toro adding another addled lawyer to his resume).
10. Snowpiercer Genre filmmaking of course has its place (and potential for artfulness), and this blisteringly entertaining science-fiction actioner has the benefit of capturing the zeitgeist. Bong Joon-ho's first English-language feature is a movie-movie, with edgy cred and a vivid dystopian vision that, while ostensibly futuristic, speaks harshly to the class divide already defining us. Snowpiercer has energy to burn in its eye-popping design and photography, its narrative momentum, and the delirious joy we share with Tilda Swinton in her performance of a grotesque villain.
Runners-up: Into the Woods, Listen Up Philip; Two Days, One Night; The Babadook; Jodorowsky's Dune; Whiplash, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya; The Grand Budapest Hotel; Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year; X-Men: Days of Future Past
More top docs: The Kill Team, Particle Fever, Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, Art and Craft, The Internet's Own Boy, Happy Valley, The Case Against 8, Life Itself
The Year's Worst Films
1. Wish I Was Here Wish I wasn't. But I was there so you wouldn't have to be. Zach Braff's vanity writing-directing-starring project about an L.A. family in crisis featured lead-balloon humor; eye-rolling, naked attempts at tearjerking; and a general lack of charm, believability, or taste over a long, long two hours.
2. Blended It wouldn't be a "worst list" without an Adam Sandler movie. This one, a Brady Bunch pastiche, compounds its badness by dragging sweetheart Drew Barrymore into its muck. As coarse and nausea-inducing as a Big Mac someone dropped on the ground then served you.
3. Winter's Tale If you collect cherub posters, this one might make your Top Ten list, but for the rest of us, it's a hard pass. Spiritual cinema doesn't have to be stupid (see "Wild"), but writer-director Akiva Goldsman apparently didn't get that memo. In this "Bored-walk Empire," love conquers all, but only if you have a magic flying horse. Features an unintentionally funny love scene, Jennifer Connelly as a food journalist with a cancer-ridden kid, Colin Farrell as a thief who fulfills his destiny, miracle, we're all starlight, zzzzzzzz.
4. Labor Day The 2014 film that suggested one long weekend is enough time for a boy not only to become a man but to experience a lifetime's worth of "father-son" bonding (with an escaped-convict stranger, no less), and offered the offensive stereotype of a female basket case who, more than anything, needs a strong man, preferably a bad-boy hunk with an easy touch for her and a slow hand for a Swiffer. As gooey as the pie in its widely mocked food-porn scene.
5. The Other Woman I can't speak for the women in my life, but I suspect they would be offended by the ones depicted in this Cameron Diaz starrer. On the one hand, they get the equal opportunity, like the men in Judd Apatow movies, to behave like overgrown children, but the power they give their cheatin' man to occupy all their waking hours makes this comedy more sad than funny. If this is girl power, we're experiencing rolling blackouts.
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