#10. Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon Ho
#9. Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by Jim Jarmusch
I wouldn't expect a film containing vampires, hipster lifestyle porn, and lectures that border on condescending to be anything remotely worth seeing, but damned if Jim Jarmusch doesn't pull it off. Only Lovers Left Alive entrances right from its swirling vortex of an opening shot (set to the crashing, scuzzy sounds of SQÜRL - Jarmusch's own band), pulling you into the movie's tremendous and tactile atmosphere that makes spending time with these characters a genuine pleasure (their infinite cool doesn't hurt either). A minimalist/hangout film in true Jarmusch fashion, he wisely eschews the campier aspects of his vampiric protagonists in favor of using their immortality as a jumping-off point to wax poetic on love, optimism/pessimism, and most of all, art. While the pretentious tone of all the scolding and finger-wagging threaten to sink the whole movie, it's hard for me to argue with its ultimate sentiment: if we humans can't achieve immortality through art, the next best way to spend our brief time here is to at least appreciate the hell out of it (preferably alongside someone who shares your exquisite, exquisite tastes).
#8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
#7. Nightcrawler, directed by Dan Gilroy
#6. Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher
#5. The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson
"I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it - but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace."
It hits you towards the end of Wes Anderson's latest (which couldn't be more aggressively Wes Anderson) that The Grand Budapest Hotel is serving as an unapologetic mission statement for his unique brand of filmmaking and often-criticized refusal to stray from what he knows/does best. It succeeds in that it ultimately proves: why the hell should he? A celebration of everything Wes Anderson (nearly everyone from his movie family is here, from Jason Schwartzman to Willem Dafoe), The Grand Budapest Hotel's relentless humor almost makes you forget about the strand of melancholy running just beneath the surface. A masterfully executed balancing act, one of which Gustave himself would most certainly approve.
#4. Birdman, directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu
Birdman (and its justifiably ballyhooed camerawork/cinematography, specifically) is one of the best examples of "form following function" in a movie that I can recall. Its appearance of having nearly the whole film unfold over the course of a single/uninterrupted take is a beautiful marriage to the onscreen action, giving the illusion that the cast and filmmakers actually got together and decided to put on a Broadway show for us moviegoers - just as Riggan and company do (Birdman itself obviously serving as Alejandro Inarritu and Michael Keaton's own What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). There's also the additional layer of meta from Keaton's former glory days as a superhero to drive this parallel home, but that blatant "life imitating art/art imitating life" angle is only so compelling - what's more remarkable is that Birdman is able to accurately capture/translate the sensation (and more importantly, danger) of live theater, giving the impression that the whole project is a cinematic house of cards. While exhilarating to watch, this also challenges viewers' expectations of film grammar and how they generally engage with movies - our eyes are conditioned to expect that cut, and when we don't get it, it's slightly (and purposely) uncomfortable. I love that the film pokes audiences in that way, and it results in making Birdman stand out as something wholly original. In the end, it's an experimental scattershot of a movie that asks considerably more questions than it answers, but it's so extraordinarily accomplished (not to mention acted, my god) that it's one I enthusiastically look forward to unpacking over repeat viewings.
#3. The Raid 2, directed by Gareth Evans
It's strange for a film to leave you simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated, but that's exactly the feeling you get once The Raid 2's credits roll. Despite trading in the small-scale efficiency of its predecessor for the considerably larger scope of a proper crime saga, this bar-raising (if not outright shattering) sequel still manages to keep the far-more-varied action coming at a steady clip - from the prison riot to the car chase to the kitchen fight, each brawl showcases Gareth Evans' ambition through their different settings/personalities/color palettes, etc. And while the movie's slightly more bloated as a result of the beefier story and myriad of characters, I have to applaud his decision to not lazily rehash the original by simply throwing poor Iko Uwais in a different building (and it's hard to complain when any one of the film's dozen or so fights would be the climax of your average, run-of-the-mill action movie). Evans is the master of getting a reaction out of his audience, and as someone who happily saw The Raid 2 four times in theaters, I can confirm the difficulty of physically/vocally restraining yourself while watching - it's that kind of visceral response that more than earns The Raid 2's place in the "best action films of all time" conversation.
#2. Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater
It's rare for even outstanding movies to evolve past mere entertainment and offer audiences more of an experience (as corny as that sounds), but Boyhood is one of those precious few that engaged me on several levels: I was at once following the narrative, attempting to work out the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the awe-inspiring 12 year timeline, and going on a personal trip down memory lane (nearly impossible to avoid with a project like this). A plethora of memories (long locked away, both good and bad) bubbled to the surface while watching and when a film has the ability to stir your emotions so immediately, it becomes clear just how unique and special it is. Richard Linklater's self-professed fixations on time and memory are perfectly manifested in Boyhood, and the material is wonderfully suited for his storytelling sensibilities (somewhat shapeless, in that he excels at evoking a particular mood/atmosphere, rather than bombard you with plot). After all, what you remember and don't remember about those formative years doesn't necessarily fit into a clean, three act structure - your memories pick you, not the other way around. It's a notion the film encapsulates beautifully, shining a light on the quiet/seemingly insignificant moments in between the "milestones" and throwing into question what in life "is banal and what's poetry" (to quote Linklater himself). Watching Mason and his family quietly age (there's fortunately little to no fanfare when the years pass) as the story unfolds in real time gives whole scenes, conversations, and beats an added weight that simply wouldn't be there had it been shot traditionally (our present day selves are privy to information that both the characters and actors couldn't have known at the time, elevating the movie to so much more than an aughts-centric nostalgia piece). Somehow just knowing that literally 12 years have passed over the course of 165 minutes makes you feel that much closer to the characters by the film's end and also serves as a painful reminder of just how fast time moves (reinforcing the old adage of "life passing people by while they're making grand plans for it" - a lesson learned too late for the mother, but perhaps not Mason). Boyhood hasn't left my head since I first saw it last August and I don't expect it to anytime soon - such a thing is rare, indeed.
#1. Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle
Does the end justify the means? Is there more than one path to greatness? What does it mean to be "great", anyway? Can it only be attained through suffering of the highest degree? Do being a genius and being an asshole go hand in hand? We've heard these sort of questions before, but seldom are they all seamlessly worked into a film as tightly wound, confidently directed, and relentlessly entertaining as Whiplash. The aforementioned musings are put into the context of jazz at a prestigious music conservatory, but whether you're into that specifically or not (I most definitely am, for the record) isn't the point - this is a scorching portrait of blind, youthful ambition that anyone who's had drive/aspirations can connect with, regardless of the field (military, sports, cooking, painting, etc). And although Fletcher is clearly the psychotic "bad guy" and we're generally meant to side with Andrew, the script intelligently takes a seemingly base-level scenario that could be very black/white and instead fleshes out the characters' grays (could Fletcher have a point, is it a "happy" ending if Andrew achieves his goals, etc). Believability is certainly stretched as the drama gets more and more heightened, but we're so invested at that point that it doesn't matter - time and time again I thought I figured out where Whiplash was heading only to have it yank me in a far superior direction I hadn't even anticipated. Great music, cinematography, and editing that made my palms sweat cap it all off, and the ending was the closest I've come to ripping out of my seat in applause. I remember thinking to myself as I stumbled out of the theater, "How could this not be my favorite movie of the year?"