In a crowd of wholly traditional fare, it was the films that tried something different that stood out over the course of the year. For every movie like The Theory of Everything, there was a Birdman. For every Imitation Game, there was a Boyhood. The films I chose for my top ten are all, for the most part, examples of this break from the mold. When it came time for me to compose this list, I picked the films that not only distinguished themselves as unique, but also resonated both mentally and emotionally. In my opinion, the best movies are the ones that make you think and feel.
Get On Up (Directed by Tate Taylor)
Following 2011’s The Help, director Tate Taylor proves once again that he understands how to inject liveliness and exuberance into what could be seen as a conventional story. Get On Up tells the story of James Brown’s diverse life, and it tells it with vivid style and substance, jumping between different periods of importance in his life quite smoothly. Chadwick Boseman delivers a grandiose performance as the hardest working man in show business, and is absolutely deserving of a Best Actor nomination during awards season. The supporting cast, including Viola Davis and Nelsan Ellis, are also great. Overall the film is brimming with heart and soul, as a James Brown biopic should be, and it made a substantial impression on me by the time the closing musical performance hit its final note.
Edge of Tomorrow (Directed by Doug Liman) / X-Men: Days of Future Past (Directed by Bryan Singer) / Guardians of the Galaxy (Directed by James Gunn)
It was a difficult decision to choose which one of these three excellent action/sci-fi flicks deserved the number nine spot. Too difficult, in fact, so it ends up being a three-way tie. Each brings something interesting and exciting to the science fiction genre. Edge of Tomorrow blends its Groundhog Day sentimentality with visceral direction and action seamlessly, and Tom Cruise proves yet again that he is an absolute movie star through and through. X-Men: Days of Future Past fixes most of the chaos wrought by previous entries in the franchise and delivers an at times funny, at times relentless time-travelling adventure that cements itself as the best in the series. Guardians of the Galaxy is a surprisingly absorbing and clever adaptation of the obscure Marvel comic, with extremely likable characters, acerbic wit, mesmerizing visual effects and makeup, and a great throwback soundtrack that fits in notably well with the world set-up by the film. It is by far my favorite entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Way He Looks (Directed by Daniel Ribeiro)
The quintessential trait of this Portuguese film is charm – lots and lots of rapid, ardent, lively charm. Played at the UWM 2014 LGBT Film Festival, this story of a blind Brazilian teen is funny yet dramatic, casual yet interesting, and all at once compassionately earnest. The highlight of the movie is most definitely its vibrant and empathetic characters. Written with serious levity and a respect for honest teenage vernacular, they personify a generation and are the heart of the entire film. It works simultaneously as a portrait of youth culture, a look inside the life of the blind, and as a poignant and unexpected love story.
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (Directed by Sam Fleischner)
An absorbing and tense depiction of the stark relationship between the natural and man-made world, as well as a tale of loss and confusion, this observant indie tells a simple yet intuitive story. Ricky, an autistic preteen living in Queens with his mother and older sister, wanders off one day into the subways of New York. The ensuing search continues on throughout the film as we follow both Ricky and his mother as she looks for him. A cast comprised of completely unknown actors, including Jesus Sanchez-Velez (who is actually autistic), does a phenomenal job and the direction by Fleischner is assured, giving the city of New York a certain liveliness not commonly seen in other American films.
Interstellar (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
Christopher Nolan’s ninth feature film stands as one of his best; a sprawling, beautifully realized, and thrilling exploration of the universe, Interstellar boasts ambition and scale unseen by most other blockbusters. Matthew McConaughey gives another terrific performance and the Hans Zimmer score is mesmerizing. Some might find the film’s length hard to justify, but for the most part Nolan understands good pacing. This is a thought-provoking, daring science fiction film that stands among the best the medium has to offer.
Gone Girl (Directed by David Fincher)
Gone Girl is one of director David Fincher’s best films simply because it achieves so much in unexpected ways. The movie manages to pull out a staggering amount of extremely dark humor and wit from a significantly dour story, as well as boast both excellent writing and stunning performances. Rosamund Pike in particular, who plays Amy, pulls off an amazing and haunting performance with fervor for reasons I can’t really elaborate on in the interest of spoilers; I will say, however, that it is my favorite female performance of the year. Ben Affleck and Carrie Coon are also pretty superb. The film is nothing if not layered, which is exactly why it works as a commentary, a thriller, and a relationship drama. Gone Girl will be remembered as a movie with an unforgettable twist, as it should be, but it should also be recognized as one of the most taut and compelling adaptations of the last few years.
Comet (Directed by Sam Esmail)
A recently released and mostly overlooked independent film, Comet is one of the most accomplished and unique love stories I’ve ever seen. Its script is an unforgettable blend of poetic realism and reckless abandon, overflowing with creative set-ups and lines so memorable that I could quote them for you (“I don’t mind your pessimism as much as I normally mind pessimism”). It’s true that people don’t really speak like the two leads in the film do, but the writing is just too sharp to ignore, and it works quite well in the context of the world that is created by first-time writer/director Sam Esmail. Emmy Rossum and Justin Long are really the only two characters in the film, and they are both excellent. Rossum, an actress who I think could be considered one of the most underrated in the business, is especially delightful and at times highly neurotic. They are both fascinating characters, and watching their relationship play out in different moments over the course of six years (a structure similar to Mark Webb’s  Days of Summer) is an enthralling and gratifying experience.
Boyhood (Directed by Richard Linklater)
Boyhood was an undeniably ambitious and colossal undertaking for Richard Linklater; filmed over the course of 12 years, the film tells the story of one boy’s life from elementary school to graduation, using the same lead actors in order to lend a heightened sense of realism and connection to the audience. It was a risky venture, but boy did it pay off. The result is a film whose heart is unquestionable, whose relatability is palpable, and whose performances transcend the boundary between actor and subject. Because of this, Boyhood is simply one of the most unique cinematic accomplishments ever put to screen and is destined to go down as an American classic. The film’s tactic of using the same actors as they grow up over 12 years is truly something special and is to be admired as not only a successful experiment, but as an intelligently developed and powerful form of resonation that is unlike anything I’ve ever beheld.
Birdman (Directed by Alexander G. Inarritu)
Birdman is one of those works of art that just came out of nowhere. A completely surprising, inventive, and propulsive film, it fuses the worlds of cinema and theater together into a brilliant concoction of farce and drama. It’s a fascinating commentary on maintaining relevancy in the modern age, as well as on the lengths people are willing to go to prove that they matter. The movie doesn’t at all tell the audience how to feel, instead focusing on the different plights of the characters as they try and navigate through the plot. Everyone delivers spot-on performances, including Michael Keaton, who is astounding as a former Hollywood star who’s trying to stage a comeback. The script is brilliant and moves beautifully, similarly to the camera work, which creates the illusion that you are watching the film in one long continuous take (it is not one take, but Inarritu’s camera tricks are indisputably clever). Birdman is set to be one of the frontrunners during Oscar season, and it’s difficult to not see why. It stands as an absolute masterpiece.
Under the Skin (Directed by Jonathan Glazer)
Speaking of masterpieces, here we end with my favorite film of the entire year, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Glazer’s third feature is sprawling yet intimate and at times thoroughly horrifying, grippingly surreal, and achingly beautiful. The film’s plot is focused on Scarlett Johansen’s character, an extraterrestrial being whose plan is to feed on the men of Scotland towards an unknown grander goal. In fact, the story is utterly unimportant and serves only to plant the seeds of more lofty metaphorical and philosophical prospects. Under the Skin’s beauty and substance stem from such prospects, making heavy statements on the predator/prey dynamic, the role of women in a male-dominated society, and, most importantly, what it means to be a human being. Johansen is stellar as the unnamed alien, delivering one of the best and most subtle performances of her illustrious career. As the sole lead in the film, she serves as our guide through a sea of encounters with the male Scottish population. Eventually she picks up the ones that walk alone, offering them a ride, and takes them back to her “lair”, where sexual provocation leads to them being sucked into the floor, their skin shed and meat harvested for an unknown purpose. My point being, the film is extremely esoteric in nature, which is a notable turn off for general audiences – but for those who care to dive deeper, there is truly something extraordinary to be taken away from it.
As Johansen transitions from being an unsympathetic predator to a compassionate victim, the layers begin to peel back. This transition begins with one of the most incredible scenes I have ever seen in a film before; Johansen picks up her next victim only to find that the man is disfigured and alone. For some reason, Johansen feels empathy towards the man and, following a staggering exchange of emotion, decides to let him go. This sets the stage for the second half of the film, which delves into the intricacies of Johansen’s character trying to find her place in a foreign and human world. Overall, the film is my favorite of the year because it accomplishes all of these points in stunning fashion, simultaneously painstaking realized and effortlessly mounted. It’s a movie that stimulates both the heart and the mind, and will have one leaving the theater feeling complete emotional drain. Under the Skin is Jonathan Glazer’s opus, a gift to cinema, and my favorite movie of 2014.