Anchored by Jake Gyllenhaal’s blazing performance as the creepy, amoral Lou Bloom, Nightcrawler plays like a fractured fairytale take on the American dream. Bloom is reprehensible, driven and ambitious and unwilling to be stopped by anything, including morality. Writer and first-time director Dan Gilroy gives us a series of profoundly uncomfortable scenes, and chooses to almost completely bypass gore in favor of evoking moral disgust. But Gyllenhaal is the standout, giving one of two top-notch performances this year, the other being in Denis Villenueve’s eerie, existential Enemy. But it’s Jake G’s bug-eyed performance in Nightcrawler that earns him a spot in the Cinematic Weirdo Hall of Fame.
It’s too easy to call The Babadook a horror movie. It’s more like a 21st century update of The Yellow Wallpaper, using a children’s book to examine the increasingly-fraught relationship between a disturbed little boy and his exhausted, grief-stricken mother. There’s a lot to chew on about how we treat—or don’t—mothers of difficult children, particularly when she doesn’t conform to Minivan dreams of idealized motherhood. Writer/director Jennifer Kent announces herself as a major, major talent with this debut. Also this movie has the single most spine-crawling sound cue of the year.
A visual masterpiece and narrative tightrope act, Birdman balances the highbrow and low as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu takes pop culture to task for draining the art and passion from cinema and replacing it with commercialism. Ego, vanity, depression, ambition, art, commerce, theater, life, and desperation all come together in Michael Keaton’s Riggan, a washed-up actor best known for a superhero role he’s desperate to put behind him. Technically flawless, Inarritu’s dizzying camerawork never overwhelms the actors or the story being told. Birdman lingers as it asks us to ask more from the art we consume.
Writer/director John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson follow up The Guard with this examination of the long-term fallout of the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. Gleeson gives a helluva performance as Father James, an affable priest whose friendly overtures are often met with suspicion and disgust in the wake of the scandal. When a parishioner threatens to kill him because of previous abuse by a different priest, Father James sets about straightening out some issues within his parish. Notions of forgiveness and evil are weighed against a picturesque Irish backdrop for a thinker’s film with no easy answers.
Faced with an avalanche, a father abandons his family and then must spend the rest of the worst vacation ever dealing with the fallout. At times darkly comic, Force Majeure questions traditional gender roles, monogamy, and most of all a slowly-crumbling patriarchy that leaves men adrift from their own families. An outstanding effort from Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund, this movie also has the year’s best sound design. Almost completely forgoing a score, Östlund instead draws on the increasingly unsettling sound of mechanical hums to highlight tension in a scene. Want to understand why sound engineers win Oscars? Watch this movie.
Simply put, one of the most stylish movies of the year. Filmmaking duo Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett mine genre tropes and twist them in unexpected ways for a psychological thriller that climaxes with a balls-out brilliant take on the horror flick cliché of the doomed high school dance. Starring Dan Stevens in a game-changing performance and featuring one of the best soundtracks of the year, The Guest is unrepentant, blood-soaked fun.
The LEGO Movie
For sheer enjoyment and happiness experienced while watching, The LEGO Movie makes the list. With an inventive, surprising script that mines pop culture for top-notch comedy, The LEGO Movie takes an unexpected, third-act turn that reveals real, refreshingly un-sappy emotion at the heart of what could easily have been a ninety minute commercial. That the gorgeous animation and stellar vocal performances take a back seat to the plot and the witty dialogue speaks to the strength of this script.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch’s dreamy, erudite romance about two vampire lovers takes a lackadaisical approach to storytelling that feels less like watching a movie and more like spying on actual lives being led. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton seamlessly inhabit centuries-old lovers Adam and Eve, and while everyone anticipates 50 Shades of Grey’s whips and chains as some kind of cinematic erotic renaissance, for my money simple shots of Adam and Eve twined together in various states of repose make for some of the most erotic arthouse cinema we’ve seen in years.
Despite Harvey Weinstein’s best efforts to hamstring it, Bong Joon-ho’s delightfully odd dystopian movie finally found an audience this year. Featuring another killer performance from Tilda Swinton and a career-best from Chris Evans, Snowpiercer is a bonkers mix of classic Hollywood action and deeply weird cinematic choices (WTF with that fish) that makes for the most satisfying action movie of the year.
Under the Skin
A complex, cinéma-vérité-esque film (many scenes were shot using hidden cameras and feature real people unaware they were interacting with a be-wigged Scarlett Johansson), Jonathan Glazer’s long-gestating Under the Skin adaptation is the kind of film two people can watch and walk away with two entirely different perceptions of what they just saw. Identity, humanity, morality—it’s all examined through the lens of an alien visitor who begins to identify with the people she must consume in order to survive. Glazer’s dispassionate lens observes stunning, bold imagery and he draws a career-best performance from Johansson. The best film of the year.
Beyond the Lights, Blue Ruin, Foxcatcher, Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash
Okay Movies Featuring Stellar Performances
Bradley Cooper – American Sniper
Amy Adams & Christoph Waltz – Big Eyes
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
Jeremy Renner – Kill The Messenger
Jenny Slate – Obvious Child
Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
Movies Everyone Else Loved That I Did Not
Boyhood, The Theory of Everything
Are You F*cking Kidding Me?