This year at the movies -- like all years at the movies -- was the best of times and the worst of times: an age of wisdom (mostly at the art house) and an age of foolishness (mostly at the cineplex).
As usual, the best films of the year were those that writ large questions about the nature of human existence ("Boyhood," "Only Lovers Left Alive"), the purpose and function of art ("National Gallery") or timely social conundrums like income inequality ("Snowpiercer") and the role of government in our lives ("Citizenfour," "Leviathan"). Meanwhile, the CGI beat went on (and on) in multiplexes churning out superhero movies, animated kiddie spectacles and relatively thrifty (if brain-cell-costly) comedies.
There were moments in 2014 when art and commerce conspicuously met, as with the nimble, witty comic-book movie "X-Men: Days of Future Past," the surprisingly subversive "The Lego Movie," the mind-trippy psychological horrors of "Oculus" and "The Babadook," and a not-entirely Disneyfied take on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's thoughtful musical, "Into the Woods." One film -- Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman" -- even took as its subject the art vs. commerce debate, which comically worked at tearing apart Michael Keaton's semi-autobiographical character.
Betwixt the extremes, 2014 offered plenty to enjoy and admire, including Luc Besson's gonzo sci-fi actioner "Lucy," the pop-fueled high-flying fantasy "Guardians of the Galaxy" and the unexpectedly mature kiddie sequel "How to Train Your Dragon 2." We watched a modern-day Romeo and Juliet tussle with cancer ("The Fault in Our Stars"), madcap hotel employees dash about Europe ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") and even the life and death of a film critic (Roger Ebert in "Life Itself"): something for everyone.
In contemplating the year, a critic also smiles to recall the humble pleasures of films destined not to find wide audiences: the plucky punk girls of Swedish dramedy "We Are the Best!", the wonder of posthumously "Finding Vivian Maier," the magisterial performance of Irrfan Khan in "The Lunchbox," the heady theatrical dialogue of "Venus in Fur," the heartwarming gay domesticity of "Love Is Strange," the arrival of a fresh new voice with Justin Simien's "Dear White People," a pop star's long goodbye in "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me" and even "Palo Alto" proving ready for its close-up.
Yes, it's been quite a year for film. Consider the following lists an invitation to hit the theaters, fire up Netflix, rattle the Redbox or clip and save this article for the next time you're in the mood for a movie. Let's meet back here next year to exchange notes, and in the meantime, Happy New Year.
The top ten films of 2014
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-lover's 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.
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, masterful 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).
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.
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 becomes 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.
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.
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.
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 his 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.
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.
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.
And the best film of 2014 goes to:
The deceptively simple idea behind Richard Linklater's magnum opus was to shoot a few days a year for 12 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 struggles, financial woes 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.
"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"
The bottom five films of 2014
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.
4. 'Labor Day'
This 2014 film suggests that one long weekend is enough time for a boy not only to become a man but also to experience a lifetime's worth of "father-son" bonding (with an escaped-convict stranger, no less). It also offers 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. The result is gooey as the pie in Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin's widely mocked food-porn scene.
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, especially if you have a magic flying horse. Among its features are 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 and a miracle proving we're all starlight. Zzzzzzzz.
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.
And the worst film of 2014 goes to:
1. 'Wish I Was Here'
Wish I wasn't, but I was -- so you wouldn't have to be. Zach Braff's vanity writing-directing-starring project about an L.A. family in crisis features lead-balloon humor; eye-rolling; naked attempts at tearjerking; and a general lack of charm, believability or taste over a long, long two hours.
Of course, there's plenty more to remember beyond 2014's highest highs and lowest lows. Read on for our take on the best good guys, the worst baddies, the top documentaries and the most magical animated movies.
The best heroes
5. Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood"
4. Princess Kaguya in "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya"
3. Chris Pratt in "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "The Lego Movie"
2. Michael Keaton in "Birdman"
1. Marion Cotillard in "Two Days, One Night"
(Honorable mention: Gore Vidal in "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia," Alejandro Jodorowsky in "Jodorowsky's Dune" and Edward Snowden in "Citizenfour")
The worst villains
5. Meryl Streep in "Into the Woods"
4. Jake Gyllenhaal in "Nightcrawler"
3. Sheila Vand in "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"
2. Eva Green in "300: Rise of an Empire"
1. Tilda Swinton in "Snowpiercer"
(Honorable mention: Angelina Jolie in "Maleficent" and Godzilla in "Godzilla")
The top documentaries
5. "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz"
4. "Art and Craft"
3. "Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles"
2. "Particle Fever"
1. "The Kill Team"
(Honorable mention: "Happy Valley," "The Case Against 8," "Life Itself")
The animated winners
5. "The Boxtrolls"
4. "Ernest & Celestine"
3. "Big Hero 6"
2. "How to Train Your Dragon 2"
1. "The Lego Movie"