Still on my to-see list: Selma, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, The Guest, Dear White People, Citizenfour, The Raid 2, John Wick, Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, Song of the Sea
Five Honorable Mentions: Edge of Tomorrow was a smart and surprisingly funny sci-fi film that should have been a bigger hit than it was. How to Train Your Dragon 2 has fallen a bit in my memory as its overall story isn’t as strong as the first, but it’s still filled with amazing moments and consistent beauty. Obviously movie critics are gonna have inflated opinions of it, but regardless of subject matter Life Itself is a good portrait of a critic and a great meditation on death. Whiplash and We Are the Best! are opposites in many ways, one tense, masculine, and perfectionist, one loose, feminine, and punk, but both music-themed movies are among this year’s strongest.
10. The Imitation Game (in theaters)
Morten Tyldum’s made an entertaining biopic elevated by the fascinating real-life story at its basis (the cracking of the Enigma code and the tough strategies needed to keep the cracking a secret) and a brilliant performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as the closeted homosexual mathematician Alan Turing. Though the filmmakers either don’t know or won’t admit it, they’ve also managed to create one of the best cinematic portrayals of life on the autism spectrum.
9. Noah (on DVD/Blu-Ray)
Darren Aronofsky’s epic-yet-intimate midrash might not be a perfect movie, but it’s stuck in my mind long since its spring release. There’s nothing else like it, a Biblical fantasy action film that morphs into arthouse horror, pissing off religious fundamentalists and baffling hardcore atheists while leaving anyone in the middle with plenty to ponder. The creation sequence (embedded above rather than one of the misleadingly bland trailers) was one of the year’s highlights.
8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (on DVD/Blu-Ray February 17th)
Frame-for-frame, Isao Takahata’s final film, an eco-feminist Buddhist parable, is the year’s most beautiful. It’s certainly got a lot of those frames, it’s rather slow by animation standards, but that slowness builds up to moments of breathtakingly raw emotional power. Like the My Neighbor Totoro–Grave of the Fireflies double feature somehow squeezed into one movie, the opening scenes had me in awe as much as the ending had me in tears.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy (on DVD/Blu-Ray)
Simple fun deserves praise when it’s this damn fun. James Gunn’s wacky space opera somehow manages to equal the thrills and laughs of Marvel Studios’ previous highpoint, The Avengers, and this is somehow in a movie with characters nobody knew or cared about before this. Yet now we’re all in love with a walking tree that only says four words and its gun-totting space-raccoon friend. If that’s not proof of the magic of cinema, I don’t know what is.
6. Boyhood (on DVD/Blu-Ray)
Richard Linklater’s 12-year experiment is looking like our likely Best Picture winner, barring competition from Selma possibly. And if it is the winner, it’ll be one of the more interesting winners in the category. A movie that brings up so many memories (especially if you’re in the college age range or a parent of someone who is) that it’s hard to discuss in depth without getting personal, Boyhood is both a time capsule and a celebration of living in the present moment.
5. The Babadook (on VOD)
At this point in the list rankings become much less a matter of quality and more a matter of mere personal presence, as the quality of these movies is all so great that it’s really just what appeals to you the most. If you like horror, you need to see Jennifer Kent’s debut feature The Babadook. I went in not knowing anything about it except that it’s about a single mom, the lead performance by Essie Davis was getting raves, and it was supposed to be really scary, and I suggest you go in the same way (not gonna link the trailer since it shows a bit too much, albeit out of context). It starts playing off one form of psychological horror, naturally transitions into another, and ends up in a place where it’s a meditation on the nature of fear itself. And Essie Davis is great and it’s really scary.
4. The LEGO Movie (on DVD/Blu-Ray)
It’s scary how great this is. All hail Phil Lord and Chris Miller, our new questionable-concept-redeeming Hollywood overlords!
3. Snowpiercer (on DVD/Blu-Ray/Netflix)
No disrespect to Hunger Games, but Bong Joon-ho’s long-awaited “class war on a train” blow-out is the most entertaining dystopia movie of the current decade. It’s the best case example of how filmmakers can borrow narrative techniques from modern videogames to their storytelling advantage. The cast’s great (hope Tilda Swinton gets a Supporting Actress nom), the design ingenious, and the ending powerful in its blunt social criticism.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (on DVD/Blu-Ray)
Looking at the scary political situation in the modern world, Wes Anderson’s tribute to an ideal of civilization that never truly existed rings powerful. Never before was his dollhouse style so filled with meaning and purpose; in a world this mad, we need our places of escape. With this meticulously constructed, brilliantly funny break-out hit, led by Ralph Fiennes at his most charming, Wes is now one of the strongest directors working today.
1. Birdman (in theaters)
I’ve seen some critics dismiss Alejandro G. Inarritu’s latest work as “pretentious”, but I don’t think that’s fair. Birdman‘s a mockery of pretentiousness; the film might take shots at blockbusters but it doesn’t treat Riggan Thompson’s “serious” theatrical ambitions with much more reverence. It’s irreverent all around; if it holds reverence for anything it’s for an honesty that challenges the pursuit of both populist “fame” and highbrow “prestige.” Some have pointed out it’s pretty similar to the Looney Tunes short where Bugs and Daffy try to outdo each other on stage, and that’s actually a damn good comparison. It’s got the outrageous humor of a good Looney Tunes short, but Michael Keaton also intensifies the same seething existential frustration that make Daffy Duck such a compelling character… Wait, am I sounding pretentious? But I’m acknowledging it with humor! Damn, no wonder I loved this movie so much…