Intro music (for a slideshow): Thanks to Hollywood's distribution system (all the best movies stuffed into the end of the year, often with only NY and LA screenings), I had to wait a few weeks before posting this. And I still haven't seen J.C. Chandor's “A Most Violent Year,” which is currently playing in all of four theaters around the country. (Thanks, A24.) Despite the chatter elsewhere, I think this was a good year for movies. Any year in which “Life Itself,” “Nightcrawler,” “Selma” and “Whiplash” don't make my top 10 is a good year. Plus it was good early. Nearly half of the films on my list played in Seattle before July 1.
10. Force Majeure:The atmosphere Ruben Östlund creates is distant, cold, spooky. It’s the modern, mechanized society. All needs are met but no one is present. We only see two employees at the ski resort and both are silent and incompetent. Otherwise, everything is just there and vaguely menacing: the booms of the controlled avalanches; the creaking of the ski lifts. One of my favorite shots is the family waiting through their electric toothbrush routine. No physical movement is actually involved. They’re all just waiting for the mechanism to finish its task. Its task is us.
9. Foxcatcher: What an indictment of the American class system. It’s about how excellence can be bought by the idle rich. It’s a movie about the sadness of people with too few options, and the sadness of people with too many. It’s about these words, “No, Mark, stay,” which implies a dog you can control, and “No, John! Stop, John!” which implies a dog you can’t. The dog you can’t control is the very rich, who are very different from you and me.
8. Love Is Strange: The best love story of the year. The dramatist’s dilemma isn’t how to bring the lovers together but how to keep them apart for 90 minutes, and Ira Sachs’ approach is novel: he marries them. Society does the rest. The movie has issues (all movies have issues), but it has such humanity. I think of John Lithgow's Ben painting on the rooftop, and Alfred Molina as George showing up for a rainsoaked late-night embrace.
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson needs real actors at the heart of his movies to give them heart, and Ralph Fiennes does so here. Anderson says the film was inspired by Stefan Zweig's memoir “The World of Yesterday,” and, indeed, we go through a world of yesterdays (2014, 1985, 1968, 1932) to get to a protagonist who lives in a world of yesterday: as 20th-century war approaches, he pretends 19th-century manners matter. Anderson’s world of yesterday is one where art and literature matter, and he sustains that illusion with a marvelous grace.
6. Le Passé:There are small, exquisite scenes. Asghar Farhadi often shows us the thing before revealing what the thing means; before revealing its past. The ending is about as perfect as endings get. “If you can hear me,” Samir tells his comatose wife, “squeeze my hand.” The camera then pans to his hand in hers. We’re waiting for any movement. It's the title. It's a man being held, and not, by something that’s dead, and isn’t.
5. Fury:It begins with a man on a white horse patrolling through the fog of a recent battle. Except he’s a German officer and he’s quickly killed by Sgt. “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). David Ayer is putting us on notice: No men on white horses here, kids; no John Waynes. You know the leap in realism between John Wayne movies and, say, HBO’s “Band of Brothers”? “Fury” almost feels like that leap again. It makes you long for the moral clarity of “Band of Brothers.”
4. The Drop:The obvious comparison, and it’s a doozy, is with “On the Waterfront.” Both films have dark moods, a weight of the world, a sense of being trapped. The cops are no help and the church just reminds you of all the bad you’ve done. The key relationship is the older relative—brother Charlie, cousin Marv—and each has a dirty history. Years earlier, favors were asked, lives were ruined. Maybe the asker doesn’t know it yet. Maybe he doesn’t want to know. Then there's Hardy's final monologue. I go to the movies for the way he says “Nah.”
3. Ida: It's not just a gorgeously shot look at Poland and the aftermath of World War II; it's the best roadtrip movie of the year, the best detective team of the year. The beautiful novitiate nun gets them in places, the sharp-tongued Jewish prosecutor digs for answers. “Did you know the Lebensteins?” “Jews?” “No, Eskimos.” The closer she gets to an answer, the more she unravels. There's a purity to the film in form and content. There's not a wasted line, a wasted shot.
2. Birdman: The Susan Sontag quote, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing,” is taped to the corner of Riggan's dressing-room mirror, and it's the most ignored thing in the movie. Is the play any good? Depends what the New York Times critic writes tomorrow. Am I any good? “You’re beautiful, you’re talented, and I’m lucky to have you.” We want to be of the people but soar above them. We want to feel ourselves beloved on the earth. Because if we're not? We're nothing. We're not even here.
1. Boyhood:It has moments that feel as real as my own memories: the search for arrowheads, giggling at lingerie ads, hanging in the narrow space between garages. There’s the late-night, teenage drop-off in the station wagon, the makeout sessions in same, the friends that come and go. The movie, filmed over 12 years, is wholly unique. Because we watch this young actor age all this time, there’s a pang when we think of him and the boy he once was. It’s almost as if he’s family.
Exit music (for a slideshow): Feel free to post your faves below. Here are my top 10 lists from 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009.