Runners-Up: Even though I go overboard with 30 films (not including docs or animation, which get their own post unless they make the top 10), there are still some films that deserve attention that didn’t make the list. Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Blythewood) was an excellent musical melodrama, with a great performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo) is probably the best Marvel movie to date, Child’s Pose (Calin Peter Netzer) was a fascinating, disturbing, extremely well-acted study of a screwed up family. The Double (Richard Ayoade) is a wonderfully funny, surreal nightmare of a film about what happens when Jessie Eisenberg meets his doppelganger. Goodbye to Language 3-D (Jean Luc-Godard) was mind boggling in terms of its visuals – which reinvent 3-D photography, but I still have no idea what the hell it was about. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski) is a brilliantly photographed, touching, ambiguous, angry film about Poland’s past, The Immigrant (James Gray) was gorgeously shot, and brilliantly acted. Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre) is a very funny comedy about a woman who gets pregnant – and decides to get an abortion, with a great performance by Jenny Slate. The One I Love (Charlie McDowell) had its big twist in the first act, and then got weirder and better. The Rover (David Michod) isn’t the triumph that Animal Kingdom was, but an excellent genre film just the same. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie) is a fine thriller, about the dangers of desire, when a man meets two very different men at a gay pickup spot. Wild (Jean-Marc Vallee) is an excellent examination of one woman rediscovering herself by hiking – which is a lot deeper than that brief description would imply.
And now onto films 31-21.
31. Mommy (Xavier Dolan)Quebecois director Xavier Dolan is only 25 years old, and Mommy is already his fifth film. Dolan is a fearless filmmaker –he goes for broke with each film, and seems to be tackling different genres and styles with each passing film. Here, he has made a 2 hour and 20 minutes exercise is in excess – a soap opera in many ways, which he mirrors with the narrow aspect ratio he chooses (1:1). The film about a complex, love-hate relationship between a single mother (a brilliant Anne Dorval) and her son, who is completely out of control – and the strange effect a third party, played by Suzanne Clement, has when she enters their lives. The film is perhaps too long – especially since it doesn’t have much of a plot, and at least one too many musical montages – but these minor problems aside, Mommy is exhilarating from start to finish. Dolan will likely make a better film than Mommy someday – he’s working at nearly a movie a year clip, and goes from broke each time so it is likely. But for now, he has made his best film to date – and reaffirms his status as one of the most interesting young filmmakers working today.
30. The Drop (Michael R. Roskam)One of the more unjustly overlooked films of the year, Michael R. Roskam’s The Drop is wonderfully constructed crime thriller. Tom Hardy plays a character that is perhaps a little slow – he works as a bartender in a low-end dive in Brooklyn for his longtime boss, and friend, played brilliantly by James Gandolfini. Once in a while, the bar acts as a drop for the Russian Mob, who has taken over the local racket. When a robbery happens at their bar, things start to get worse. At the same time, Hardy starts a sweet romance with a woman who helps him with the dog he found in a dumpster (Noomi Rapace), while her violent ex-boyfriend (Matthias Schoenarts) shows up at the same time. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, the film is one of the best crime thrillers of the year – it is understated, and takes its time building to its climax. Like many of the best Lehane novels, the movie sneaks up on you – getting deeper and darker as it goes along. The film has a “twist” ending, but it’s one that actually fits in with everything that came before it. A fine, English language debut for Roskam – and a fitting send off for Gandolfini - not to mention yet another showcase for Hardy.
29. Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)Godzilla is the rarest of blockbusters – an actual auteur film, made within the studio mandated structure that needs a lot of special effects, and things blowing up. Director Gareth Edwards last film was Monsters – a film that he shot with two actors, in Mexican locations, and then added brilliant special effects with little else other than his laptop. Godzilla takes his worldview in that film, and adds hundreds of millions of dollars in special effects – and ends up with an even greater version of the film. The human characters in the film are all sympathetic – but they are all basically useless as well. They enact one plan after another throughout the film – but none of it matters. If Godzilla, and the other monsters, want to destroy humanity – they will. The film is all about how the characters see and experience the scenes of destruction – often from a distance, or on TV, and not in close-up. It is, like the original Godzilla, which is about mankind’s hubris, and how it will ultimately destroy us all. It is also a thrilling blockbuster – that gives you everything you could want in a Godzilla film – but in brilliantly original ways. Edwards is a real filmmaker – and he has used the studio system to make a great film of his own. He’s still the guy who made a monster movie on his own computer. Now, he just has more resources at his disposal.
28. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)Like clockwork, every three years Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne go to the Cannes Film Festival with a great movie – ones that sit back and observe their characters in a variety of different genres, but always with a similar goal. In Two Days, One Night they tell an economic fable – where the main character, brilliantly played by Marion Cotillard, has to go to her co-workers, one by one, to get them to vote to keep her instead of getting their annual bonuses. The film is basically the same scene over and over again, with slight variations. Her co-workers are generally nice – they like her, and while some agree to vote for her, some tell her that they cannot do that – they need that money for a variety of (mostly good) reasons. The end of the movie is great, as it seemingly does the impossible and doesn’t over sentimentalize its conclusion, with either joy or sorrow, but ends on an ambiguous note. The Dardennes are among the most consistent directors in the world – every three years, they show up with a great film. Two Days, One Night is no exception.
27. Proxy (Zack Parker)Zack Parker’s Proxy is perhaps the best film of the year that no one talks about. It starts with a shocking act of violence – a pregnant woman being beaten with a brick so that she’ll lose the baby. From there, it becomes a disturbing examination of the now not pregnant woman, who is shielding darker secrets that we ever imagined. Then, at about the half way point, another shocking act of violence switches the focus to another woman – who is equally disturbed as the first woman, but in a completely different way. The film was marketed as a horror movie, but it isn’t really that, despite how terrifying it is. It isn’t really a thriller either – even though it does superficially resemble that as well. Instead it is one of the most disturbing portraits of madness you will see this year. Don’t let the fact that the film was barely released in theaters, before heading straight to DVD and VOD fool you – this is a great film.
26. Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong)
25. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is a different kind of revenge thriller. Anchored by a great performance by Macon Blair, as a man who finds out the man who murdered his parents has been paroled, and decides to get his revenge – setting up a series of messed up events, none of which play out the way he expects them to. From the early scenes, with Blair looking like an insane, homeless man, to the moment his shockingly gets his revenge (to his own surprise as much as anyone else’s) – to the consequences of that act, Blue Ruin never takes a step wrong, even as it continues to twist itself, and never goes quite where we expect it to. The film is bloody and violent – but has a vein of pitch black humor running throughout (the funniest line of the movie, one of the funniest of the year, is about an arrow wound). Saulnier made this film with almost no money – but it doesn’t feel like that. I see countless revenge movies every year – but very few even come close to Blue Ruin.
24. Birdman (Alejandro G. Innaritu)Birdman is an immensely entertaining, amusing comedy that probably isn’t as insightful or meaningful as it means to be – but is so well directed and acted, it hardly matters. Michael Keaton is great as a movie star, known for a comic book character, trying to gain his respectability back by doing Broadway (although, it must be said, the play he is doing looks laughably awful). Surrounding him are various characters that are almost as crazy as he is – Edward Norton is particularly great as a vain character actor. Even though the movie takes place over several days, it looks like it is done in one continuous shot, because of the cinematography magic of Emmanuel Lubezki, and some trick editing. Innaritu, who until know has been known mainly for heavy (and heavy handed) dramas, has decided to go into comedy this time – and makes what may be his best film to date (although, to be honest, it is still a little heavy handed). A mesmerizing, entertaining comedy.
23. A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbjin)John LeCarre has been writing intelligent spy novels for decades now – not the kind you normally see in movies, with action, sexy women and gunfights, but the kind about the slow, often un-glamorous world of real life spies. A Most Wanted Man is one of his best recent novels – about life in a post 9/11 world – and director Anton Corbjin has crafted an intense movie out of it. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives his final great performance, as a German intelligence officer, who is being punished by his superiors and foreign powers, for a botched job in Beirut. But Hamburg is still important as that is where many of the 9é11 terrorists came through. He isn’t about to let that happen again – and when a young man arrives on the shores of Hamburg, he thinks he has his chance to turn him to catch bigger fish. This entails a game of cat and mouse, with many intricate, moving pieces – as it always does in LeCarre. The film doesn’t quite reach the heights of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy from a few years ago – but it comes close, and may in fact have an even better final scene.
22. Listen Up Phillip (Alex Ross Perry)I wasn’t a huge fan of Alex Ross Perry's last film – The Color Wheel, which was pretty much 70 minutes of hipster navel gazing- but it had such a brilliant ending that I knew I wanted to see whatever else he did next. Listen Up, Philip is a huge step forward for Perry – a kind of play on the work of Woody Allen and Philip Roth, but doesn’t see his characters with an ounce of romanticism. The main character, played brilliantly by Jason Schwartzman, is an asshole in the first scene in the movie – where he berates an old girlfriend, before moving on to berate an old roommate, who happens to be in a wheelchair – and over the course of the film, he simply becomes an even bigger asshole. A brilliant writer he may be – but he`s still an asshole. Jonathan Pryce plays his mentor – an even bigger asshole. And Elisabeth Moss is his girlfriend, who learns to be as selfish as him, but does it to finally free herself of him. All this may sound kind of dour, but the film is actually hilarious throughout – with wonderful, literate narration, delivered by Eric Bogosian in a brilliant deadpan, who mercilessly takes down the main characters (at no time more than the film scene). I was curious to see what Perry was going to do after The Color Wheel – so I cannot wait to see what he does next.
21. Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier)Back in the spring, when I saw Volume I, I was somewhat up in the air on Lars von Trier’s epic film. The first film was enjoyable, but I still couldn’t get a handle on it – and I said in my review that it could end up being a disaster or a masterpiece based on what happened in Volume II. I liked Volume II as well – and while it never became Trier’s masterpiece, it is a film that has haunted me all year long (by the way, what happened to the even longer, five-and-a-half long, single cut of the film that I thought was supposed to come out on demand by now? I haven’t seen it yet, and I would love to). It would be easy to dismiss Nymphomaniac as yet another female martyr film from Trier – which would place it in a long series of his films like Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Antichrist and Melancholia. But the film is somewhat different than that – it’s funny, it’s stark, and it’s disturbing. It’s a fascinating exploration of sexuality. It isn’t exactly subtle – Trier doesn’t do subtle – but it’s a deeper film than some give it credit for. This is one of those films that grows in your mind over the months – and perhaps years. I wouldn’t be shocked if this film sneaks closer to the top 10 if you were asked me to make this list again in 5 years.