It was a year of many tortured geniuses onscreen — Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, J.M.W. Turner, Brian Wilson — and behind the scenes, where directors like Bong Joon-ho, James Gray and Paul Schrader fought producers and distributors over final cut, and the right to see their films properly released. Of course, the very idea of distribution has become nearly as diffuse in the digital era as that of film itself, a material on which few movies are still made and even fewer shown — unless you happen to be Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan, who earned the ire of some theater owners when he demanded they reinstall 35mm projectors if they wanted to screen his “Interstellar” two days early. In light of the film’s $600 million worldwide gross (and counting), one can only say: poor them.
Speaking of “Interstellar,” if there was one undeniable constant at the movies in 2014, it was time, which kept slipping into the future for Nolan’s astronauts and the denizens of Richard Linklater’s audacious “Boyhood”; ticking by in enumerated days for Edward Snowden and Ben Affleck — the central figures in two diabolical thrillers about men trapped inside their homes by a media feeding frenzy; and endlessly folding back on itself for the soldiers in “Edge of Tomorrow,” the year’s smartest comicbook movie (alongside “Snowpiercer”) and a perfect metaphor for Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for the cannibalizing of content. Indeed, just in the past month, both “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Terminator: Genisys” released teaser trailers ot their teaser trailers — a trend one hopes and prays will not catch on.
In such strange and confusing times, at least we could be reassured that “God’s Not Dead,” the title of an insufferable Christian indie release that scared up an astounding $60 million in U.S. ticket sales, roughly the same amount earned by the regurgitated TV miniseries “Son of God” and about $40 million less than Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” (the only one of these titles to do significant business overseas), while a black-and-white movie about a Polish-Jewish nun (“Ida”) became the surprise arthouse hit of the year. Still to test the box office waters: Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” in which one main character undergoes a transformative religious conversion by becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.
But if the Almighty was having a veritable McConaissance in 2014, the industry itself was running for doomsday cover, as Rupert Murdoch made a play for Warner Bros. and Daniel Loeb divested himself of Sony Pictures (shortly before a devastating cyber-attack brought the troubled studio to its knees), amid rumors of yet more mergers and acquisitions to come. Meanwhile, spurred on by a provocative Manohla Dargis editorial in the New York Times, critics, festival programmers and distributors argued over whether the digital revolution has brought into existence a surfeit of really bad movies that have no business being shown, seen, or written about by anyone. (The correct answer: yes.)
Yet somehow, in spite of the apocalyptic air, the gears of the dream factory are still turning, the assembly line runneth apace, and we’re still here talking about a year in movies that had much to offer indeed.
1. “Goodbye to Language.” Decades from now, the inspired meeting of 3D and the singular cinematic poet and provocateur Jean-Luc Godard may claim a place in the canon alongside Chaplin’s smile and Al Jolson’s first words. But by any measure, Godard’s effusive/mournful, impish/heartfelt tower of moving-image babel was, moment by moment, the year’s headiest picture show in this galaxy or the next.
2. “Citizenfour.” The movie that did for cell phones and laptops what “Psycho” did for showers, Laura Poitras’ feverishly absorbing Edward Snowden documentary has been widely (and deservedly) praised for its meticulous reporting and its stirring tribute to the art of journalism, but perhaps not praised enough as an equally meticulous piece of cinema, saturated in the air of a ’70s paranoia thriller and glazed with the steely industrial palette of Michael Mann. There was a touch of science fiction, too, to Poitras’ images of massive data-collection sites perched on the edges of our cities — except this future is now, and Big Brother is very much watching.
3. “Winter Sleep.” There were two irresistible fantasy vacation spots in movies this year: the Grand Budapest Hotel and the Hotel Othello, ground zero for Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s magisterial relationship drama about the complex entanglements of a depressive middle-aged intellectual, his lovelorn younger wife, his acerbic divorcee sister, and the impoverished tenants who live at the edge of their land but intrude very directly into their lives. Working from two Chekhov stories, plus the deep reserves of his own imagination, Ceylan pulls you into a world you scarcely want to leave, even though just about everyone onscreen longs to do exactly that.
4. “Inherent Vice.” Paul Thomas Anderson’s faithful yet freewheeling adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s ’70s-era stoner noir was a polarizing event from the moment of its New York Film Festival premiere, and seems sure to baffle no shortage of multiplex-goers wooed by the name of Reese Witherspoon above the title. But no matter: Anderson brilliantly catches — and maybe even improves upon — Pynchon’s Dadaist, end-of-hippiedom vibe and builds it into a most affecting valentine to a lost, mythical Southern California that maybe never existed in the first place.
5. “Foxcatcher.” In Bennett Miller’s impeccably acted, wonderfully weird gothic, those much-used-and-abused words “based on a true story” don’t just refer to the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz by Philadelphia millionaire John du Pont but rather to a timeless tale of one-percent privilege run amok. The dark but also mordantly funny results confirmed Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) as one of the great American filmmakers of the moment, and Steve Carell as a funnyman with the transformative force of a master dramatic actor.
6. “The Immigrant.” Another look at the dark side of the American dream, this time by the operatically inclined James Gray (“Two Lovers”), who fought the law — aka distributor Harvey Weinstein — in the editing room and during the film’s barely visible U.S. release, only to see the law win. Nevertheless, Gray’s lyrical period drama — industriously produced on a modest budget — felt like a classic in the making as it charted the odyssey of a young Polish emigre (the stunning Marion Cotillard) through the bowels of a Depression-era Manhattan that seemed at once far away and yet somehow so close.
7. “Gone Girl.” David Fincher and novelist-screenwriter Gillian Flynn’s beauty of a bad date movie was as merciless on modern relationships as it was on a tabloid media machine that accuses first, asks questions second (if at all) and rarely admits when it’s wrong. Seeing is rarely believing in Fincher’s world, though the director’s peerless bourgeois horror stories are one of the major reasons to keep believing in movies themselves.
8. “Interstellar.” A science-fiction epic as grand as the Imax screen, Christopher Nolan’s time-bending space odyssey may have sometimes overreached in its attempt to marry head-scratching theoretical physics to the mechanics of the human heart. But however imperfect, “Interstellar” was that rare loop-de-loop thrill ride worth its weight in ideas, emotion and dazzling images.
9. “Selma.” Uncanny good timing, with race back at the center of the national dialogue, made Ava DuVernay’s razor-sharp civil-rights drama an indispensable movie of the moment. But it was DuVernay’s smart, measured storytelling, careful avoidance of biopic cliches, and David Oyelowo’s magnificent performance as a flawed, human-scale Martin Luther King Jr. that made “Selma” one for the ages.
10. “American Sniper.” The somewhat jingoistic, flag-waving memoir of ace Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle became, in the hands of director Clint Eastwood, a melancholic rumination on a number of his career-spanning themes: the iconography of the solitary man of action; the high toll on all sides in the war zone; and the uncomfortable realities nibbling away at the edges of America’s self-glorifying myths. Punctuated by the best close-quarters combat scenes this side of “Black Hawk Down,” this was Eastwood’s best work in the decade since “Letters From Iwo Jima” and, more simply put, one of his best.
The next 10 (in alphabetical order): “Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Ida,” “Listen Up Philip,” “Manakamana,” “Mr. Turner,” “Nymphomaniac Vols. 1 and 2,” “Two Days, One Night,” “Whiplash”
Best films lacking U.S. distribution: “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” “Blind,” “Charlie’s Country,” “Cracks in Concrete,” “Episode of the Sea,” “Five Star,” “The Kidnapping of Michel Houllebecq,” “Two Shots Fired,” “We Come as Friends,” “The Wonders”