And the best films were...

Unlikely hits

And the best films were...

I’ll skip the usual laments about the cruel arbitrariness of list making. There were a lot of movies this year — more than 950 reviewed in these pages — and quite a few good ones. Here is the 10 best list, not necessarily in that order, and the runners-up. It is, as always, a highly personal selection. These are the movies that touched, excited, challenged and haunted me most in 2014.

1. Boyhood
In my 15 years of professional movie reviewing, I can’t think of any film that has affected me the way Boyhood did. It is not just that I was moved — I’m frequently moved — but that my critical impulse seemed to collapse, along with my ability to find the boundary between art and life. Some of this is a matter of coincidence. Arriving in the summer that my only son and oldest child graduated from high school and prepared to fly the parental nest, this chronicle of a boy’s life from six to 18 would have wrecked me even if it had been more conventional. As it happened, it took a second and a third viewing for me to appreciate the ingenuity of Richard Linklater’s idea and the artistry of his methods.

Filming the story over 12 years was a bold and brilliant gamble. Linklater’s discovery of Ellar Coltrane to play the lead role of Mason was serendipitous. Watching his character grow in fairly ordinary circumstances is endlessly intriguing and surprisingly suspenseful. But Boyhood, while rigorously faithful to Mason’s perspective, is as much about his world and the people in it as it is about him. The film is a sympathetic critique of manhood and a critical tribute to motherhood. It opens on American life and offers a progress report on our spiritual condition. There are missing pieces, of course, but that’s part of the point. A movie, like an individual’s life, is a singular thing. It can’t be comprehensive; it can only be, as comprehensively as possible, itself.

2. Ida
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is another kind of coming-of-age story, a retrospective consideration of girlhood in Poland in 1962. With breathtaking concision and clarity — 80 minutes of austere, carefully framed black and white — Pawlikowski penetrates the darkest, thorniest thickets of Polish history, reckoning with the crimes of Stalinism and the Holocaust. But the heart of the movie lies in the performances of Agata Trzebuchowska, as a young novice learning the truth about her family’s past and Agata Kulesza as her cynical aunt, part of the country’s Communist elite.

3. Citizenfour
Before seeing it, I assumed that Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ documentary about the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, would be yet another work of earnest cinematic advocacy, preaching to the choir on issues already widely aired in the news media. What I saw was something much more subtle, artful and unnerving: an eyewitness political thriller dramatising the confrontation, in an ideologically confused and technologically tangled age, between the individual and the state.

4. Leviathan
The modern state provides Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan with its controlling metaphor, and it is interesting to note that the particular state in question — Vladimir Putin’s Russia — is the one in whose belly Snowden now resides. Zvyagintsev depicts it as a cruel, beautiful and passionate place, and tells a simple, primally powerful story of marital distress, political corruption and heroic vodka consumption in gorgeous, almost hallucinatory widescreen compositions.

5. Selma
Even if it did not open in the midst of a season of racial inflammation, Selma, Ava DuVernay’s meticulous reconstruction of a crucial chapter of the civil rights movement, would arrive bearing the burdens of history. It’s not often — it’s pretty much never — that a major studio allows a black woman to direct an expensive, prestige-laden historical drama. But the stiff, bland, self-congratulatory pageantry that so often weighs down such projects is entirely missing here. There is instead a palpable sense of political urgency as a vivid assortment of characters (importantly but not exclusively David Oyelowo’s the Rev Martin Luther King Jr) quarrel over strategy, tactics and the moral future of America.

6. Love Is Strange
Like Boyhood, Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange hit close to home. Its New York locations, in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, were easy to recognise, and many of the characters seemed uncannily like people I know and love. Maybe this means that the movie, which starts with the wedding of a longtime gay couple (Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, never better), has been tailored to please a specific, easily caricatured blue-state demographic. But I’d prefer to believe that Sachs’ compassionate and unflinching interest in the lives of his characters is expansive rather than exclusive, and that his tale of romance, friendship and real estate is a magnificent and universal love story.

7. We Are the Best!
When I was a teenager, back in the 1980s, musical taste was a line in the sand. If you didn’t like certain records — punk rock and affiliated genres, mostly — I wasn’t sure I could like you. Tastes mellow with age, but I kind of feel that way about We Are the Best! Lukas Moodysson’s ebullient celebration of the adolescent punk-rock spirit, circa 1982. The story couldn’t be simpler: Three middle-school girls in Sweden start a band. Only one of them can play an instrument, but when has that ever mattered? Their anthem “Hate the Sport” is the song of the year, whatever year it happens to be.

8. Mr. Turner
This has been quite a year for difficult male artistes and their troubles — with women, with ambition, with a world that doesn’t quite understand them. Alejandro G Iñárritu’s Birdman and Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up, Philip each take a crack at the creative ego and its discontents, but they are pale, tentative efforts next to Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, an earthy, messy, altogether sublime portrait of the great 19th-century British painter, played by Timothy Spall.

9. Dear White People
The raw material of Justin Simien’s Dear White People is raw indeed. The state of race relations looks pretty bad right now, and things don’t look so great on our college campuses either. Rather than soothe us with false hope or dreams of consensus, Simien offers the homeopathic remedy of elegant, intelligent comedy. His fictional Ivy League university is a hotbed of political posturing and social rivalry, but it is also a laboratory of shifting identities where the possibility of enlightenment is never entirely foreclosed. Kind of like America.

10. The Babadook
I’m still too freaked out to say much more about The Babadook. I don’t want to provoke the monster. And I’ll be looking forward to Jennifer Kent’s next movie. I’m already clearing out a hiding place under my bed.

Runners-up: Beyond the Lights, Bird People, The Dance of Reality (with Jodorowsky’s Dune), The Grand Budapest Hotel, A Most Violent Year, Particle Fever, Snowpiercer, Top Five, Two Days, One Night, Wild.

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