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20 Best Movies of 2014: ‘Boyhood,’ ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier,’ and More

From a 12-year experimental film project to alien seductress Scarlett Johansson, it's been a very fine year for movies. Here are the best.

Marvel

Marvel

20 Best Movies of 2014: ‘Boyhood,’ ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier,’ and More

Despite the dearth in passable blockbuster fare—and an assemblage of truly awful so-called romantic comedies—it’s been a pretty damn impressive year at the movies. The best films, as is often the case in Tinseltown, came from outside the major studio system. Richard Linklater finally began to receive the respect he’s long deserved as a great American filmmaker with Boyhood, a slice of life pastiche shot over 12 years, while Scarlett Johansson haunted us as an alien seductress scouring the streets of Scotland for human prey in Jonathan Glazer’s surreal Under the Skin. With over 900 films hitting screens this year, The Daily Beast only managed to check out around 300 or so, but without further ado, here are our picks for the best movies of 2014.

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20. 'CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER'

Who knew that the Russo brothers, whose biggest directing credits to date were the mediocre comedy flick You, Me and Dupree and the Emmy-winning pilot to Arrested Development, could knock a superhero movie out of the park? Once again, Marvel’s unconventional filmmaker choices paid off in spades. The Winter Soldier improved mightily on the first installment, upping the ante with The Avengers’ Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as a new hero in Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and a dapper Robert Redford, a timely plot about drones, and plenty of fun action set pieces—including more street shootouts than several Michael Mann films combined.  

Neighbors-Movie.com

19. 'NEIGHBORS'

It’s no secret that Zac Efron had a pretty serious cocaine problem while shooting Neighbors, Nicholas Stoller’s (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) high-octane comedy about a pair of young parents (Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne) coming to terms with being uncool. His hell-raising frat boy is Damien with a six-pack, wreaking havoc on all those who cross him—with Rogen, a surprisingly hilarious Byrne, and a bromantic Dave Franco matching the High School Musical grad beat for wacky beat. The gags all land in this riotous parents-versus-frat boys free-for-all, which also provides a nice commentary on the myriad anxieties faced by new parents.

Ali Paige Goldstein/Paramount Pictures and IAC Films

18. 'TOP FIVE'

Chris Rock would be the first to admit that his pair of turns thus far in the director’s chair (Head of State, I Think I Love My Wife) has left plenty to be desired. It turns out the stand-up extraordinaire just needed to channel his inner Woody Allen, packing his film with an array of jokes fit for Madison Square Garden, an on-point Rosario Dawson as an overzealous New York Times reporter profiling his fading comedy star over the course of a day, and more scene-stealing cameos than you can imagine, courtesy of Tracy Morgan, SNL’s Leslie Jones, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, and a certain law-breaking rapper. Rock has finally established his filmmaking voice, and it’s a damn funny one.

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17. 'LOVE IS STRANGE'

The latest from acclaimed indie filmmaker Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue) has garnered four Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Film. It tells the story of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), a gay couple in Manhattan who’ve been together for 39 years. When they get married, George is fired from his job teaching music at a Catholic school, and since they can no longer afford to live in their pricey New York apartment, the two are torn apart—with Ben crashing with his nephew and his wife (Marisa Tomei) and child, and George staying with their rowdy neighbors. A tender love story about the pains of being apart and the struggles of living in New York, it is wonderfully progressive in its normalcy and features two delightful performances by Lithgow and Molina.

Courtesy A Most Violent Year

16. 'A MOST VIOLENT YEAR'

Writer-director J.C. Chandor does a brilliant job of navigating tense, richly-layered atmospheres, whether it’s in the rooms of a Wall Street firm during the financial crisis (Margin Call) or a grizzled Robert Redford marooned at sea (All Is Lost). Here, he’s married that tonal dexterity with a gritty crime drama, crafting a piece that recalls the work of Sidney Lumet. Oscar Isaac soars as an immigrant who’s struggling to balance his family and expanding his business in New York City during the winter of 1981, one of the Big Apple’s most violent years ever, while Jessica Chastain turns in arguably the best performance of her career as his long-suffering wife.

Courtesy Manakamana Film

15. 'MANAKAMANA'

Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, this beauteous documentary traces the paths of several different groups of pilgrims who travel to Nepal, and then ascend the mountains by cable car to worship at the renowned Manakamana temple. The camera homes in on the faces of devotees for minutes at a time, forcing you to peer deep into their souls and, like these faithful voyagers, search for meaning. It’s a hypnotic, deeply spiritual journey that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

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14. 'TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT'

Belgian filmmaking duo the Dardenne Brothers are celebrated for their naturalistic films tackling lower-class life in Belgium, and they’ve helmed some of the best (and most underrated) films of the past thirty years, including La Promesse, Rosetta, and L’Enfant. Their latest, Two Days, One Night, is rare in that it stars arguably the biggest film actress in France, Marion Cotillard. She plays Sandra, a young wife and mother who works at a small solar-panel factory in Liege, Belgium. She has to take time off from work after suffering an illness, and the other factory workers cover her shift by working longer hours. When management offers the workers a €1,000 bonus each to work longer and make Sandra redundant, she must visit all 16 of her co-workers and convince them to turn down the money and save her job, and family. It's an emotionally grueling journey, but Cotillard serves as a terribly affecting guide, wearing Sandra's desperation on her ever expressive face.

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13. 'THE IMMIGRANT'

As Ewa Cybulski, the doomed Magdalene-like protagonist of James Gray’s The Immigrant, Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard delivers one of the best performances of the year, fully embodying a Polish émigré who lands at Ellis Island in 1921, only to fall into the clutches of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a seedy nightlife impresario/pimp. In addition to Cotillard’s devastating turn, Phoenix is convincingly grotesque, and Jeremy Renner pops up for some fun as Emil/Orlando the Magician, a dashing chap who’s taken by Ewa’s beauty and élan. And the filmmaking composition by Gray and his DP is exquisite, offering image after image of a world not often put to screen—the largely Jewish Lower East Side of New York City during the ‘20s—before closing things out with one of the finest last shots in recent memory.

Tribeca Film

12. 'STARRED UP'

Young British actor Jack O’Connell may be getting plenty of plaudits for his starring role in Angelina Jolie’s WWII epic Unbroken, but he is absolutely mesmerizing as a violent young offender in a brutal Irish prison in David Mackenzie’s gripping drama. Once he enters the prison, he’s forced to negotiate thugs who want him dead, a volunteer therapist (Rupert Friend) who’s there to help, and his overbearing father (Ben Mendelsohn), who lords over him—and the prison. Starred Up is brutally realistic and intense, but the real prize here is O’Connell. It’s a feral, star-making turn on par with Michael Fassbender in Hunger or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Manic.

Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection

11. 'BIRDMAN'

Birdman, directed by Alejandro Inarritu, is a masterful exercise in pacing and choreography, with ace lensman Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) weaving this surreal fable about a faded A-lister known for playing a superhero (Michael Keaton) mounting a desperate comeback by staging a Broadway play into what appears to be a single continuous take. The camerawork, along with Keaton’s live-wire performance and scene-stealing ones from Edward Norton as his acting nemesis and Emma Stone as his troubled daughter, make this a truly transfixing experience.

Courtesy Leviathan Film

10. 'LEVIATHAN'

This Hobbesian-titled film comes from acclaimed Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev, who directed the excellent Golden Lion winner The Return. Zvyagintsev’s film is set in a tiny coastal town on the Barents Sea known for its whale sightings. Nikolai (Aleksey Serebryakov) and his family are tormented by a corrupt local mayor (Roman Madyanov) who’s trying to take away the family’s land, home, and auto repair shop. So, Nikolai enlists the help of his old Army buddy (now an attorney in Moscow) to try and build a case against the mayor. It’s a searing, frighteningly naturalistic drama that provides a not-so-subtle jab at the Putin regime, and is Russia’s submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Oscars.

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9. 'THE BABADOOK'

I don't want to give too much away about this, the scariest movie of the year. What I will say is it's an Australian horror film by first-time filmmaker Jennifer Kent about a demon from a children's book that haunts a mother and her son. It will stay with you long after you've left the theater. "I've never seen a more terrifying film than THE BABADOOK," wrote The Exorcist director William Friedkin. "It will scare the hell out of you as it did me." If that isn't a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is.

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Photofest

8. 'THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL'

Inspired by the writings of Austrian fatalist Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson’s latest colorful confection is a pastel-coated caper set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, somewhere in central Europe. It centers on the rakish Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes, glorious), famed concierge of the titular hotel, and his young apprentice, Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori). The dynamic duo become embroiled in a plot involving a priceless painting, imposing henchmen, and Bill Murray. Anderson is one of Scorsese’s favorite filmmakers for a reason: he’s an auteur in every sense of the word, and here he’s crafted his most delectable film to date. The sheer craftsmanship on hand leaves other filmmakers in the dust. A true work of art.

Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

7. 'SNOWPIERCER'

South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho wowed us with his creature feature The Host and sent chills up our spine with his spooky Oedipal neo-noir Mother, but this sci-fi actioner elevates him to visionary-director status. The year is 2031, and an experiment to counteract the effects of global warming has killed everyone on Earth—that is, except for the inhabitants of Snowpiercer, a perpetual-motion train on a track circling the globe. The train is divided by class, with the rich, led by Mason (Tilda Swinton, in fantastic aging makeup), occupying the front cars, and the poor, who subsist on a diet of disgusting protein blocks, in back. All that changes when Curtis (Chris Evans) leads the oppressed poor, which also includes Jamie Bell, John Hurt, and Octavia Spencer, in a revolt. The performances are stellar, the ideas are big, and the action sequences are some of the most elegantly-crafted you’ll see this year—including a five-minute hatchet-fight scene that will floor you. This is a sci-fi flick of epic proportions, and is unlike anything else you’ve seen.

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6. 'SELMA'

This Martin Luther King Jr. biopic slipped through the fingers of Michael Mann, Stephen Frears, and Lee Daniels before it finally landed in the lap of the immensely talented Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere), and thank goodness it did. The dramatization of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Dr. King is expertly crafted, including a stunning depiction of Bloody Sunday, and fueled by a towering turn from David Oyelowo as the late Civil Rights Movement leader. DuVernay and Oyelowo have captured the unwavering spirit of Dr. King which is, all things considered, no small feat.

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5. 'CITIZENFOUR'

Laura Poitras was one of the journalists, along with Glenn Greenwald, who broke the news that the NSA was spying on everyone. They did so with the help of NSA contractor (and whistleblower) Edward Snowden, who provided them with heaps of classified documents. And, believe it or not, Poitras caught the entire ordeal on film, from their first (and last) meetings with Snowden in Hong Kong, to a series of courtroom trials. This is a tremendously enthralling documentary that captures a turning point in our nation’s history, and provides an intimate look at the mysterious Snowden. It’s also, without question, the frontrunner for the Best Documentary Oscar, but has earned south of $2 million so far. Go see this film.

Music Box Films

4. 'IDA'

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, this Polish-language film is set in 1960s Poland, and tells the tale of Anna, a young nun in training who is told to pay a visit to her family before giving her vows. She visits her Aunt Wanda, who reveals that Anna’s name is in fact Ida Lebenstein, and her parents were murdered by the Stalinist regime during the war. So, the two women embark on a journey to find their parents' final resting place. Shot in stunning black-and-white, Ida is a hauntingly poetic exploration of Europe’s past, present, and future; a film about the lengths people will go in the name of faith, and truth. It’s also the Polish entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

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3. 'UNDER THE SKIN'

It took filmmaker Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) nine years to develop this sci-fi thriller, but it was worth the wait. The film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress stalking the streets of Scotland in search of prey. She drives around in a big, dark van picking up men on the street, before luring them back to her lair and leaving them submerged (and skinned) in a liquid abyss. Most of the scenes of Johansson picking up men in her van were filmed with real-life people using hidden cameras, lending it a certain naturalism. But overall, Glazer’s film is like a singular cinematic symphony, providing the most hauntingly beautiful film-going experience of the year. And the scenes of Johansson’s character seducing a loner who’s been left disfigured by facial neurofibromatosis are gut-wrenchingly poignant.

Warner Bros. Entertainment

2. 'INHERENT VICE'

From Boogie Nights to There Will Be Blood to The Master, it’s become readily apparent that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the finest living filmmakers on the planet, combining elegant composition with a sense of anarchic playfulness. His Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice is his The Big Sleep—a gonzo neo-noir centered on Doc Sportello (the always brilliant Joaquin Phoenix), a private eye who’s tasked with finding his ex-squeeze’s real estate magnate-lover, which sends him down the rabbit hole of Los Angeles in 1970. The performances, from Josh Brolin as a hard-assed detective to Martin Short’s cocaine-huffing dentist, are a total gas, Jonny Greenwood’s score is mesmerizing, and Anderson, once again, asserts himself as a renegade filmmaker of the first order.

IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

1. 'BOYHOOD'

I’m sure you’ve heard the news already but just in case you haven’t, the latest from Richard Linklater will finally earn the mild-mannered Texan the respect he deserves as one of this generation’s finest filmmakers. Filmed piece-by-piece every year over 12 years, and featuring the same cast aging in front of our very eyes, the film chronicles the maturation of Mason Jr. (newcomer Ellar Coltrane), the child of divorced parents (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke), from entering the first grade through graduating high school. It is, simply put, a masterpiece; a film at once intimate and startlingly ambitious; a string of fleeting, indelible moments sewn together in a profound patchwork that will drape over you, making you feel warm and, most of all, grateful to be alive. Time is, to borrow a phrase from the Stones, on our side.