Hollywood isn’t really in the movie business anymore. The studios are all about building franchises within franchises, stoking fan anticipation for superhero movies scheduled for release up to five years in advance. The midsize movie is headed for extinction; soon theaters will be stocked with nothing but blockbusters made for nine-figure budgets and micro-budgeted indies relegated to a dwindling number of arthouses and on-demand home viewing. That’s been the 2014 narrative in the entertainment media, anyway. For now, however, it is still possible to construct a top-ten list without a single member of the Avengers or the Justice League.
Richard Linklater’s intimate epic, twelve years in the making, has turned into the somewhat surprising consensus pick as the movie of the year. That might normally make me suspicious of my initial reaction, but a second viewing confirms the singular achievement of this film tracking a fictional boy’s life from first grade to college. Shot for only a few days each year during its production, Boyhood still feels like a seamless whole, a naturalistic work short on coming-of-age cliches and overflowing with revelatory moments.
2. Under the Skin
The names Kubrick, Lynch, and Roeg all spring to mind at various points during Jonathan Glazer’s enigmatic adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, but Under the Skin suggests nothing so much as a forgotten cult sci-fi movie of the ‘70s or ‘80s. The plot is opaque at best, with Scarlett Johansson starring as a vampiric alien entity traveling the Scottish countryside in a van and luring victims back to an inky pool of goo. But Glazer is more concerned with casting a moody spell, keeping us off-kilter with abstracted visuals, oddball, unscripted conversations between Johansson and locals filmed with hidden cameras, and a pervasive, haunting sense of unease. No movie this year lived up to its title quite like this one.
3. Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch is one of the few filmmakers from the early ‘80s indie boom to remain active without ever crossing over to mainstream Hollywood, so when the word came down that his latest work was a vampire movie, there was reason to fear the time had finally come. Such fears proved baseless: Only Lovers Left Alive delivers neither traditional creature-feature thrills nor sparkly Twilight vampires. Instead, it immerses us in a hypnotic, decaying urban night-world scored to eerie rockabilly music, and through its undead characters played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, lets us experience both the dark delights and enervating burdens of immortality.
4. Los Angeles Plays Itself
Thom Andersen’s one-of-a-kind essay film was completed over a decade ago, but never shown legally until this year. Concerns over potential lawsuits from the major studios kept this work comprised almost entirely of unlicensed clips from other movies in the realm of underground screenings, bootlegs and YouTube uploads, but 2014 finally saw a legitimate DVD release under “fair use” terms. Scenes from Los Angeles-set movies ranging from Double Indemnity to Blade Runner are accompanied by Anderson’s wry narration (delivered by fellow filmmaker Encke King), forming a wide-ranging disquisition on the city’s presentation through nearly a century of cinema. Anderson’s concerns range from the trivial (the geographical impossibility of a Cobra chase scene) to the sociopolitical (the way the movies inadvertently chronicled the downfall of the Bunker Hill neighborhood). Often funny, always fascinating, Los Angeles Plays Itself is a must for anyone who loves Hollywood – or hates it.
5. The Babadook
There’s more than a hint of The Shining in the claustrophobic domestic horror of Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature, but The Babadook develops its own unique sense of menace with a supernatural villain that’s little more than shadows and bumps in the night. The movie’s real terror is a manifestation of the complex emotional war between a harried single mother and a troubled child, and Kent’s most impressive achievement is the way she swings our sympathies between these two characters, challenging our assumptions whenever we’re tempted to pin the blame on one or the other.
6. Jodorowsky’s Dune
There was no more inspirational movie this year than this in-depth look at a film that never existed. Whether or not you’re a fan of director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s brand of grotesque surrealism, it’s hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm for ideas that, in all probability, could never have been realized in the 1970s when he held the rights to Frank Herbert’s novel. Jodorowsky comes off as part visionary, part delusional megalomaniac, but his passion for cinema is infectious and undeniable.
7. We Are the Best!
Lukas Moodysson’s adaptation of the comic book by Aldrig Godnatt is the year’s most purely charming film. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this slice-of-life look at a trio of outcast teenage girls who form a punk band in 1982 Stockholm, but the sense of time and place are convincing, the three leads create specific and distinct characters whose interactions are complicated by the trials of adolescence in believable ways, and Moodysson depicts the way art can bring misfits together without stopping to sentimentality.
8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one of the few sci-fi reboots to successfully translate its forerunner’s concepts to the modern digital age, and the follow-up makes a strong case that the Planet of the Apes series is a vital as ever. Picking up the story a decade after the worldwide pandemic that ended Rise, Matt Reeves’ sequel finds the band of apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) attempting to forge an uneasy peace with an outpost of human civilization in the rubble of San Francisco. Metaphors abound as both tribes struggle to keep their antagonistic elements contained, and the action crackles with an intensity that makes it impossible to dismiss Dawn as a mere monkey movie.
9. and 10. Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger and The Dog
A pair of true-crime documentaries with protagonists who inspired much higher-profile Hollywood films. Director Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost trilogy) could not bring his cameras into the courtroom for the trial of infamous Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger (the model for Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed), but he more than makes up for that with his access to nearly every still-living witness, accomplice and victim of Bulger’s reign of terror. Even Whitey himself is present via tape-recordings of conversations with his lawyer. Berlinger’s primary focus is on the FBI’s enabling of Bulger and the subsequent whitewashing by the Justice Department in the trial, and the result is a searing indictment of corruption every step of the way, enlivened by colorful Boston characters, locations, and accents.
The Dog, co-directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, is a compelling character study of John Wojtowicz, whose story was told in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. Wojtowicz is an unrepentant, profane, and brutally frank figure who gains a measure of poignancy as his health declines over the course of the film.
Honorable Mentions: Frank, Gone Girl, Snowpiercer, The One I Love, Listen Up, Philip, Birdman