Assembling a year-end top-10 list has always been a personal, even self-indulgent, ritual, a way of disguising a whimsical ranking of favorites as a carefully curated declaration of personal taste. At the risk of making things even more solipsistic than usual, let me begin by noting that the fraught relationship between artists and critics provided 2014 with one of its most compelling movie themes, with critics themselves — food critics, art critics, theater critics and, yes, film critics — figuring among the year’s most favored characters. And by favored, of course, I mean mocked, loathed and misunderstood at every turn.
In one of the most talked-about scenes in Alejandro G. Inarritu’s virtuoso backstage farce “Birdman,” a washed-up movie star named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) comes face to face with a notoriously nasty New York Times theater critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), who calmly informs him that she’s going to eviscerate his new Broadway play, which she hasn’t even seen yet. That a critic of Ms. Dickinson’s stature would be so corrupt, and announce her corruption so baldly, is a frankly ridiculous notion, albeit one that makes a certain sense if we understand the world of “Birdman” to be a surreal, hallucinatory projection of Riggan Thomson’s irrational insecurities. Yet the scene might just as well be read as an honest reflection of the resentments and anxieties that so many artists often feel toward the cultural commentators who take them to task.
“Birdman” may well be Inarritu’s most lauded movie in more than a decade, but the director surely knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a writer’s disdain. So, too, does Tim Burton, whose “Big Eyes” features a scene in which the faux painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) nearly stabs a fork in the eye of a real-life Times reviewer, John Canaday (a memorable Terrence Stamp), after receiving a particularly withering notice. And in his marvelous period drama “Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh can’t resist including a dig at the 19th-century art critic John Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire as an insufferably pretentious fop.
Hostile confrontations between critics and their subjects are of course nothing new, let alone the stuff of fiction. In 1973 Sylvia Miles dumped a plate of pasta on John Simon’s head after reading his particularly vicious review of her performance in the play “Nellie Toole & Co.” Forty-odd years later, social media has eliminated the need for a food fight, but it hasn’t exactly improved the civility of the discourse. Two years ago, Samuel L. Jackson lashed out at the Times’ A.O. Scott on Twitter for not kowtowing to the review-proof juggernaut that was “The Avengers.” Several months ago, Seth Rogen used the same online forum to blast Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post for suggesting that the frat-house mentality of comedies like “Neighbors” might bear a measure of the responsibility for the misogyny and male sexual entitlement ingrained in our entertainment culture.
We live, in short, in an era where a few impulsive keystrokes can bring a critic into sudden conversation with the objects of her praise or (more likely) scorn. A fictional version of this encounter could be found in the lightweight indie comedy “Chef,” in which a culinary genius (played by the director, Jon Favreau) provokes a Twitter war with a powerful food blogger (Oliver Platt) who panned his restaurant. An angry public confrontation ensues and quickly goes viral, forcing our hero — by which I do not mean the critic — to look for a new job.
How are these parties supposed to treat each other as the traditional values of tact, discretion and respect for personal privacy continue to erode, ceding ground to the new-media imperatives of defensiveness and overreaction? To judge by some of the movies in question, the answer depends entirely on the critic’s willingness to make up and play nice (a few spoilers ahead). In “Birdman,” Ms. Dickinson is so enthralled by Riggan’s suicidal performance that she winds up ditching her agenda and giving the play an ecstatic review. In “Chef,” the food blogger, like Anton Ego in “Ratatouille” before him, winds up quitting the criticism racket and teaming up with his old nemesis, going so far as to finance his next culinary endeavor.
There were, happily, a few films willing to give the role of the critic a fairer shake — and I don’t just mean “Life Itself,” although needless to say, for those of us in the reviewing ranks, Steve James’ tribute to the life and work of Roger Ebert was one of the year’s most inescapably moving documentaries. On the dramatic side, Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” delivered a wonderfully weird salute to the joys of erudition, connoisseurship and impeccable taste, as if critical acumen, like a thirst for blood, were a prerequisite for immortality.
But arguably the year’s smartest, most big-hearted and nuanced onscreen portrait of a critic could be found in “Top Five,” and not just because it had the good grace to suggest that a profession of mostly white male schlumps might plausibly be represented by Rosario Dawson. Virtually alone among this year’s movies, Chris Rock’s marvelously rounded comedy was broad-minded enough to put the artist and the critic on equal footing, and to suggest that, without forsaking their ideals, the two need not always be adversaries. It’s in a similar spirit of reciprocal generosity and unguarded admiration that I offer up this list of my favorite films released theatrically in 2014:
1. “Boyhood.” Not an original choice, but an easy one. Richard Linklater’s 12-year epic of childhood is a work of such patient, quietly unassuming mastery that it can be easy to overlook what an audacious gamble it represents, or the astonishing fact that it has no real precedent in a medium so uniquely suited to capturing the passage of time. The most experimental of mainstream filmmakers (or is it the other way around?), Linklater has transfigured the ordinary into the extraordinary — an achievement that belongs equally to Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, giving long-arc performances of unerring emotional truth.
2. “Under the Skin.” Nearly a decade after “Birth,” Jonathan Glazer emerged with another tour de force of suspense and alienation: Scene for scene, this hypnotic adaptation of Michel Faber’s surreal science-fiction novel abounded in the year’s most indelible sounds and images — a baby crying on a beach, a man’s body suspended in viscous darkness, the screeching siren call of Mica Levi’s score. As evidenced by her similarly otherworldly transformations in “Her” and “Lucy,” there may be no nervier American actress of the moment than Scarlett Johansson: The title could easily describe the cool, superhuman intelligence with which she strips the veneer off her own beauty.
3. “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Life really is like a box of chocolates in the world of Wes Anderson, though anyone who bit into his latest and most enchanting confection may well have been startled by its unusually sharp, even bitter aftertaste. At once celebrating and lamenting the pleasures of a bygone era, this glorious 1930s mittel-European fantasia, presided over by the magnificent Ralph Fiennes, finds Anderson at his most layered and Lubitschian: Watching it, we understand anew that beauty, wit and elegance of style are not meaningless indulgences, but rather the artist’s natural defenses against tyranny.
4. “Winter Sleep.” No one delivers a three-hour-plus movie called “Winter Sleep” with any real hope of attracting an audience, making it all the more unaccountable that Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or winner turned out to be one of the year’s most richly engrossing deep-dish experiences. This wise and wrenching study of human frailty may be indebted to Chekhov, but its ability to find beauty in the craggiest landscapes — and the landscape of the human face in particular — was nothing short of Bergmanesque.
5. “Foxcatcher.” Mark Ruffalo, Steve Carell and Channing Tatum give three of the year’s finest performances in Bennett Miller’s latest razor-sharp study of obsessive American striving. A mesmerizing, slow-motion tragedy, a darkly comic satire of power and privilege, and a tightly coiled psychological triangle where the balance of power keeps shifting from one man to the next, the movie is above all a singularly haunting experience — one that, judging by its chilly reception so far, might just be too subtly brilliant for that trumped-up national pastime we call awards season.
6. “Bird People.” Not to be confused with the more attention-grabbing “Birdman,” Pascale Ferran’s oddball two-hander was the year’s most unheralded delight, a wholly original work that turns a nondescript airport-adjacent hotel into a veritable playground of magical possibilities. Following the sensual, earthy pleasures of “Lady Chatterley,” this contemporary Parisian pas de deux for Anais Demoustier and a post-“Good Wife” Josh Charles reveals Ferran to be an artist unbound by language, literature, or indeed anything other than her wondrously eccentric imagination.
7. “Gone Girl.” The most lacerating relationship movie in a year with no shortage of first-rate examples was itself a surprisingly harmonious and indecently entertaining marriage of sensibilities, wedding Gillian Flynn’s devious booby trap of a thriller to the cold-blooded precision of David Fincher’s filmmaking. No wonder it was a massive hit: The sick beauty of “Gone Girl” is that it affords even the best of us a fleeting, nightmarish glimpse of the husbands and wives that we might, left to our own dark devices, become.
8. “Selma.” You can feel the urgency in every moment, but what’s astonishing is not just the righteous anger but the exacting control with which Ava DuVernay directs it in her furiously incisive, politically savvy and emotionally overwhelming account of a pivotal chapter of the civil rights movement. Those who would call “Selma” conventional clearly live in a more equitable world than the rest of us: Radical is the only word for an American movie that so bracingly charges its black women and men (led by David Oyelowo’s soulful Martin Luther King Jr.) with the task of forging their own destiny.
9. “Mr. Turner.” Too often thought of as a grotty realist-miserablist-caricaturist of the British kitchen-sink school, Mike Leigh has somehow evolved into one of our most unobtrusively great visual stylists, as evidenced by every shimmering scene in this luminous portrait of J.M.W. Turner. Easily the most revealing of the year’s numerous British-genius biopics, it’s one great artist’s tribute to another, in which Leigh’s invaluable repertory player Timothy Spall finally gets the full-throated showcase he deserves.
10. “Interstellar.” In some ways, Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending, heart-tugging, seat-rattling space epic makes a fitting bookend to “Boyhood,” elastic and playful in its consideration of time as a precious resource where Linklater’s film is grounded and linear. I don’t quite get the charges of rank sentimentalism that were hurled at Nolan’s genuinely awe-inspiring vision; few spectacles this year were more deeply enveloping than that of this wizardly filmmaker applying his rigorous intellect to the most unquantifiable of human phenomena.
The next 10 (alphabetical order): “Birdman,” “Calvary,” “Force majeure,” “Goodbye to Language,” “Only Lovers Left Alive,” “Starred Up,” “Still Alice,” “Stray Dogs” (Tsai Ming-liang), “Two Days, One Night,” “We Are the Best!”
Best films lacking U.S. distribution: “From What Is Before,” “Stray Dog” (Debra Granik), “Walking Under Water”