2014 has been an amazing year for movies, but it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of films being released. With VOD and digital viewing options starting to gain ground on traditional theatrical distribution, there’s more to watch than ever before. When compiling the list, Peter, Angie, Germain and I easily came up with a raw list of about 100 movies, and that’s while feeling there’s still a lot we have to see.
The great news is that many of these films are excellent. The bad news is that the biggest films can drown out everything else. Most movies don’t have a Marvel Studios ad budget; many come and go in a matter of weeks. Sure, they end up on disc, VOD and Netflix soon, but there they join thousands of other options. So here’s a list of 50 great films from 2014 you should see, drawn from the independent circuit and from foreign releases with independent US release.
Let’s start off twenty essentials — these are films that are exemplary in some way. Some cross boundaries between typical audiences and genres; others provide a unique look at a subject we’d previously assumed was all but exhausted. Some give us something we’ve simply never seen before. These films aren’t ranked, but the films on this page are (as far as I’m concerned) among the best of 2014.
Other films could easily be represented here, but some are essentially “tentpole indies” such as Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman — films that you probably already know about, with budgets that dwarf most of the other films on this list, and a marketing push to match. And there are a few that I’d love to feature, but which have release dates far into 2015, or no release date at all, such as The Look of Silence and Kumiko the Treasure Hunter. Then there’s Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D, which has a very limited US run.
20000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, Drafthouse Films)
Not merely a look back at the career of singer/songwriter/band leader Nick Cave, but an look into the process of creativity and the ways in which we make sense of the important events in our lives.
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, IFC Midnight)
A horror film that is almost more of a family drama than a hardcore horror picture — it’s as much driven by the spirit of Polanski as it is by the supernatural — but that’s why The Babadook is so effective. It puts character over concept, and finds a way to create visceral spectacle out of fears and problems that are common to us all.
Jodorowksy’s Dune (Frank Pavich, Sony Pictures Classics)
Pure ambition and the moviemaking process are both torn open and examined in this strangely thrilling documentary. Jodorowsky’s Dune revels in those ideas that are grand enough to band together talented people in a quest to bring a concept to life — even if that concept is almost certainly crazy, and far out of reach.
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, Open Road)
A character nightmare that follows the unbounded ambitions of a man who, conveniently, is bound by few moral qualms. Not a media satire but a modern horror movie about the drive to succeed, and the warping effect it can have on the world.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, Sony Pictures Classics)
A lovingly textured and wryly funny vision of the process by which some outsiders find their place in the world — our on the fringes of what constitutes “the world” for most of us. Forget the fact that these characters are vampires and embrace the look into a world where most of us don’t belong.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, A24)
The year’s most unusual science-fiction film isn’t afraid to take chances in its pursuit of a singular vision of the interaction between species — or is it between the sexes? Bold and almost experimental at times, Under the Skin is like a smaller realization of the same impulses explored in Jodorowsky’s Dune.
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, Magnolia)
Most of the so-called great teen movies don’t understand kids like this one does. Outsiders make their own music and find their voices in this vibrant and raucously funny story of three young teen girls who form their own punk band.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, GKids)
Grave of the Fireflies director expands an old Japanese folk tale into a truly epic family story in which a father’s ambitions for his daughter’s future are very much at odds with her own nature. Breathtakingly visualized and intuitively emotional, this is one a singular effort from Studio Ghibli.
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, Sony Pictures Classics)
It’s been a year of great performances, and we’ve seen many films in which actors have notable opportunities to bounce off one another. But the sparks that fly between J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, as a music teacher and an ambitious young drummer, are unlike anything else we’ve seen this year. The two are mesmerizing on screen together.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Music Box Films)
There’s a particular quality to the performances and black and white photography in this road movie that make it feel like an artifact that has been unearthed from the ’60s. The story of an intimate nun who has to face the secrets of her family’s past before she moves on to the next step in her own life is unusally beautiful and effective.
After the break, read the remaining list of ten essential indie and foreign films from 2014.