2014 wasn’t what you might call a great year in film, though it was a respectable one of solid enough pictures, if only a few truly inspired much passion. And while most of the below won’t be taking home Academy Awards in February, my list of the 11 best movies this year largely avoided finding slots for several “prestige” pictures, but rather included those that moved me, thrilled me, affected me or otherwise got me out of my seat. Truth be told that while others are heralding Boyhood, Birdman and Selma, all impressive enough achievements, I found little passion for any of them, substantive as they were in theme and execution. I respected them; just didn’t love them. The same cannot be said about those on my list, several of which are “small” pictures that say big things, distinctive directorial achievements or multi-level narratives that kept me guessing. Whether it was Brit Marling’s always probing intelligence, a career high from Brendan Gleeson, a black-toned drama about corruption, a terrifying apparition haunting a mother and son, Renee Russo’s smashing turn as a hard-charging news director, the idea that love can transcend space and time, the depiction of a married couple as spoils in a civil war of their own making or John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as husbands in crisis, these 11 pictures, for me, made the year that was 2014.
- I Origins – The year’s most overlooked film, Mike Cahill’s brilliant I Origins wasn’t given a fair shake by cynics who dismissed its blend of science, spirituality, love and our capacity for belief. Michael Pitt is a Manhattan molecular biologist laboring to disprove the existence of God while falling in love with his polar opposite, a free spirited model (Astrid Berges-Frisby), and later developing another relationship with his lab partner, played by the always inquisitive Brit Marling. A movie of rare intelligence—meaning super smart characters who are always refreshingly ahead of the audience—I Origins is impossible to categorize since by turns it is a scientific thriller, love story, a coming to terms with ghosts of the past movie, and a movie that makes a strong case for science before completely upends its thesis only to make a perhaps an even stronger case for feeling and intuition. Does God exist? Should we rely merely on what we can “prove?” Can we trust our feelings? How often in a lifetime can we meet the same soul, if there is such a thing? What is quantifiable? And is that meaningless when we are faced with what cannot be explained? These questions are raised, filtered and refracted back to us through several different lenses—rigorous scientific research and breakthroughs, two great loves, death, birth and then a completely unexpected third act set in India. I Origins is a major movie about big things, wrapped in an unassuming package.
- Calvary – John Michael McDonough’s beautifully written character study of a small-town Irish priest tending to a disillusioned flock was a showcase for the sublime, deep cover work of the great Brendan Gleeson, whose weary man of the cloth comes to question not simply his own beliefs, but the limits of such in a morally compromised world. Dealing with the extremes of adult survivors of abuse, adultery, murder, greed and suicide attempts in a place where everybody knows everybody and nobody wants spiritual deliverance, the picture raises challenging questions about whether religion has any place in a flawed, modern world of people simply trying to do their best, sinners as they may be. It’s also extraordinarily moving in its fateful final scene, courtesy of a fragile Kelly Reilly as the damaged daughter Gleeson left behind.
- A Most Violent Year – A hardboiled saga of capitalism, crime and family circa 1981 New York City, J.C. Chandor’s Lumet-esque tale of a beleaguered entrepreneur and family man (Oscar Isaac) trying to get a leg up in the heating and cooling business while fending off cutthroat competitors who will stop at nothing to put him out of business is an old-school treat, a movie that feels like a throwback and parses out its pleasures with measure, including skillfully built atmosphere and sequences that ratchet up tension, period-specific cinematography, and a superb collection of characters including attorney Albert Brooks and D.A. David Oyelowo, but most importantly a hard-as-nails Jessica Chastain as the woman behind the man, an icy mobster’s daughter who cooks the books, wears the pants and knows her way around a revolver. Chandor reaches potent conclusions about whether business is any place for ethics when corruption rules the day, and young actor Elyes Gabel is memorable as an unwitting casualty.