Some critics complain bitterly about the bean-counting reductionism of crafting a top-10 list at the end of the year. I’ve always really enjoyed it, although it’s hard work; it helps me focus my thinking about what I value most in movies, and why. Mind you, I never view any of these lists as embodying fixed and immutable truth. It’s my best guess at a particular moment. If I could go back in time and rebuild my 2009 list, I probably would. (Neither “Tony Manero” nor “Silent Light” made my top 10 – but “Serbis,” set entirely inside a Manila porn theater, did? Whatever, dude.) And at a certain point, the comparisons and evaluations just get silly. How do I decide which is “better” between Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” and Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” two films highly unlikely to be enjoyed by the same people. Am I just trying to prove I am large-spirited enough to like both of them?
In that vein, I struggled with myself a little over the top choice on this list, which has already won several awards from critic’s groups and is certain to be a leading Oscar contender. Sure, I’m happy enough when I can report back that the proverbial three-hour lesbian-sheepherding movie from Uzbekistan that nobody saw is the year’s great artistic breakthrough. (Previous O’Hehir No. 1’s include Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights,” Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry,” Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” and Steve McQueen’s “Hunger.”) But shoving yourself to that kind of conclusion is just as dumb as following herd opinion, arguably – and I have to stick to the marvelous experience of seeing “Boyhood” at its first Sundance screening last year, when none of us knew what it was about or how it had been made.
It’s harder to make a case for foreign-language movies in a general-interest venue like Salon, these days, and I’m positive there are things I’ve missed that could or should be included here somewhere. Your scolding is welcome, as always. In an age when cable TV drama has arguably become the leading narrative form, what strikes me most about the best films of 2014 is how cinematic they were – how forcefully a case for the wide-screen medium, and for the distinctive use of space, time and sound that defines movies. “Boyhood” would have lost its impact as a TV series, and “Leviathan,” “Winter Sleep,” “Inherent Vice,” “Mr. Turner” and “The Homesman” all featured mesmerizing and unforgettable combinations of cinematography and music.
You won’t find many of the so-called big movies of the year on this list, either of the summer-popcorn variety or the falling-leaves, adult-prestige variety. Which is definitely not to say they were all equally mediocre. Whatever misgivings I had about the surprise summer smash “Guardians of the Galaxy,” for instance, I’d much rather sit through that again than “The Theory of Everything,” the mawkish Stephen Hawking rom-com. “Interstellar” was great in patches, and then left you with too much M. Night Shyamalan aftertaste – and don’t Christopher Nolan’s fans secretly agree with that? Peter Jackson left Middle-earth behind, a decade too late, on a reasonably high note. “Foxcatcher” was a well-made dark-Americana fable that left me feeling only sadness and revulsion. I quite enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” but it really would have been a lot better as a TV show.
There are all kinds of larger questions about the declining cultural status of movies, the convergence of all media forms and the logic of entertainment capitalism hanging over the art and craft of film right now, but this is not the time and place to address them. How much longer will something like “Winter Sleep” – yeah, a three-and-a-half-hour film in Turkish, with the word “sleep” in the title, ha ha – even be feasible? If Richard Linklater were beginning to make “Boyhood” now, instead of in 2001, how loud would producers laugh? And then there’s the inescapable fact that for a few days towards the end of 2014, it looked as if the most important movie of the year, the one that truly made history, would be a farcical comedy with Seth Rogen and James Franco that we wouldn't even get to see. Then we saw it, and the movie itself was no biggie once again. Merry merry and happy happy to all! See you at the movies in the New Year.
"Boyhood” Sure, it was easier to appreciate Richard Linklater’s American-family masterpiece – 12 years in the making – when you came to it with few expectations and before it became a leading Oscar contender. But don’t let any of that stop you. As to production, “Boyhood” is unlike any other movie ever made, with its core cast members aging a dozen years alongside Ellar Coltrane, the young star who was 6 when Linklater began the film and 19 when it was finished. (Although Coltrane’s Mason Jr. is nominally the central character, I think the movie’s really about his parents, wonderfully portrayed by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.) As to execution, “Boyhood” has the breadth of a Russian novel, along with a structural integrity learned from François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette, and a fascination with time (and with Texas) that is all Linklater.
"Leviathan” Speaking of Russian novels, I haven’t yet reviewed the new film from Russia’s Andrei Zvyagintsev, but it’s a crackerjack saga about life in a spectacular corner of Putin’s Russia, with distinctive echoes of “Anna Karenina” and “Madame Bovary.” While Zvyagintsev’s previous pictures have been film-festival fave raves, a bit too obscurantist and allegorical for mainstream audiences, “Leviathan” is a social drama of adultery, political intrigue and family betrayal that fires on all cylinders, including the amazing scenery (on the northern coast, near Murmansk), a colorful cast of top-flight Russian actors. and the cinematography of Mikhail Krichman. All possible readings of the title, from the Biblical monster to Thomas Hobbes’ essay to a more Freudian interpretation, are correct.
"Inherent Vice” It takes multiple viewings, I think, to get past the loosey-goosey, episodic surface of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, the first-ever screen adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Ultimately, the shaggy-dog absurdism of “Inherent Vice,” along with cinematographer Robert Elswit’s gorgeous, dawn-of-the-‘70s L.A. haze and a subtle, sleepy-eyed performance by Joaquin Phoenix as hippie private eye Doc Sportello, serve to conceal the seriousness and nobility of the quest at its heart. This is a retelling of “Don Quixote” – and, not incidentally, of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – focused on the essential Anderson-Pynchon questions: Can we find the moment when the American dream went off the rails, and what do we do about it?
“Winter Sleep” Personally, I’d be happy ranking Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s densely woven fable of marriage, money, class and religion, all set amid the amazing mountain landscape of Cappadocia, rich in history and archaeology, anywhere in the top five of this year’s list. It belongs on a spiritual and conceptual double bill with “Leviathan” (mentioned above), except that you really need several days in between these movies, to process them, think about them and relive their emotional journeys. I’m aware, however, that in reality not many people are primed for a movie in Turkish, inspired by the stories of Anton Chekhov, that runs almost three and a half hours. I truly don’t judge you if you’re not up for the apparent challenge of “Winter Sleep,” but you’re missing out. This isn’t half as difficult to sit through as Ceylan’s slo-mo cop movie “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (which is also magnificent), and on a purely visual level it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. I would undermine my feminist-dude credentials entirely by mentioning that co-star Melisa Sözen is unbelievably gorgeous, right? Oh well.
"The Homesman” Combine a cantankerous actor-turned-director better known for his growly comic roles, a onetime Oscar-winning actress who’s had difficulty finding parts to fit her talent (playing a character described as “plain as an old tin pail”) and a genre nobody’s cared about since 1970, and it’s entirely unsurprising that the world took a pass on Tommy Lee Jones’ beautiful but pitiless western. I hope people will catch up to this potent feminist tragedy gradually, as happened with Jones’ last film, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” because it’s a memorable and unflinching depiction of American history that belongs in the same category as “12 Years a Slave.” The title role belongs not to Jones but to Hilary Swank, giving her best performance as a brave and ambitious woman who volunteers for the thankless task of transporting a trio of mentally ill farm wives away from the desperate loneliness of the Nebraska Territory and back to “civilization.”
"Under the Skin" This audacious, unfriendly and thoroughly masterful sci-fi nightmare starring Scarlett Johansson might be the ultimate critic's-darling picture of 2014. It's certainly the one that generated the most hate mail from readers who did not find a dialogue-free journey through Scotland with a female serial killer whose true nature is never explained especially entertaining. If you haven't seen it, I shouldn't even say much about the "character" Johansson plays, except that she drives around Glasgow in a fur jacket and miniskirt picking up guys for nefarious purposes, and that "Under the Skin" and Luc Besson's "Lucy" complete a ScarJo trilogy of inhumanity that began with "Her." Director Jonathan Glazer apparently only makes films when he's good and ready (the last one was "Birth" in 2004), but he's a supreme formalist who refuses to pander to ordinary narrative expectations and here pursues a haunting vision of alienation and annihilation that you won't soon, or ever, forget.
"Snowpiercer” Avoiding the mistakes of almost every other big-name Asian genre-film director of the last 20 years, Korea’s Bong Joon-ho made the crossover to English-language cinema with this stylish, hallucinatory fable about apocalyptic class warfare aboard a train to nowhere, permanently circling our frozen planet. Sure, the setup is ludicrous and the final resolution a touch abrupt, but for the most part Bong’s action-packed, Matrix-on-a-train thriller is a dark, visionary and frequently hilarious work that never sells the audience short. If Chris Evans is a tad generic as the rebel leader, the supporting cast is full of delights, from John Hurt as a Trotsky-like outcast to Tilda Swinton, with elaborate dental prostheses, as a toadying official. Best of all, when Harvey Weinstein tried to compel Bong to make the movie shorter and happier, the filmmaker told him to take a long leap off a frozen train.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" The imagineering of Wes Anderson reaches its tragicomic height in this fast-paced Lubitsch-style farce about a decaying resort hotel somewhere in the middle-European mountains overseen by its legendary and unflappable concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, in a career-topping performance). While it's loaded with hijinks and a seemingly infinite cast of colorful supporting characters -- Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum and Edward Norton, just for starters -- and pushes the Anderson diorama-design aesthetic to new extremes -- "Grand Budapest" is far more than whimsy. Although in a different register from the equally marvelous "Moonrise Kingdom," this grandiose and often hilarious miniature also uses the idea of innocence and the appearance of fantasy to broach Nabokovian questions about the death of the past and the perversely painful nature of cultural memory.
"The Immigrant” If “The Homesman” was the year’s most unjustly neglected major American film, it finished millimeters ahead of James Gray’s luminous 1920s drama, starring Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant woman and Joaquin Phoenix as the tormented New York pimp who tries to shame her and claim her. What seems at first a classic story of American survival and reinvention slowly builds into something far richer and stranger, combining intense realism – this is the first major film ever shot on location at Ellis Island – with an enigmatic and almost religious fable of sacrifice, transcendence and possible redemption. Both actors are magnificent (Cotillard in particular approaches the intensity of silent-film acting); if this is yet another Gray film to be celebrated in Europe and ignored at home, that’s because it tells a subtle, painful American story that defies national mythology.
"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” It might sound like a stunt: A vampire movie in black-and-white, apparently set in Iran and with all dialogue in Farsi, but shot in Southern California. But Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature is no novelty act. It’s the one true OMG cinematic discovery of 2014, infusing new blood into the vampire genre (sorry), reanimating the spirit of mid-‘80s indie film (sorry again) and tapping into the underground chord of meaning that connects Iran and L.A. But if Amirpour’s sense of cinema is crazy-cool, “A Girl Walks Home” is no droll hipster exercise. It throbs with meaning and emotion, with thwarted sexuality and the search for love, with righteous feminist anger and a profound yearning for the lost culture of the old country. If you’re all about plot, well, move on to something else: The plot here is about a beautiful girl, a handsome guy and a cool car. But if you wish more movies felt like classic David Bowie albums, then climb aboard.
"20,000 Days on Earth” In a bit of a down year for documentaries, British video artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s winsome, wacky and wise portrait of post-punk singer-songwriter and cultural deity Nick Cave stood out for me – maybe because it barely qualifies as documentary at all. Oh, sure -- we see Cave working in the studio (on his recent album “Push the Sky Away”) and swapping hilarious anecdotes over lunch with longtime bandmate Warren Ellis. But there are also fictitious therapy sessions, extracts from Cave’s “weather diaries” (just what they sound like) and enigmatic automotive conversations with people from his past, including actor Ray Winstone and Aussie pop chanteuse Kylie Minogue. What does it all add up to? A revelatory, loving and often beautiful study of a unique cultural figure who has largely kept his personality private. Is it for people who don’t care about Nick Cave? Probably not – but this is my list, dammit.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): I loved Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” for its cast, its energy, its music and its ambition, although it’s admittedly kind of dumb; Laura Poitras’ riveting “Citizenfour” finally let us see Edward Snowden for ourselves, and understand why he did what he did; Göran Hugo Olsson’s collage documentary “Concerning Violence” revisits the poorly understood history of post-colonial Africa, and the devastating analysis of philosopher Frantz Fanon; Ruben Östlund’s chilling, elegant Swedish black comedy “Force Majeure” isn’t far from Fanon, or from Michael Haneke; Jean-Luc Godard made a 3-D film at age 82, “Goodbye to Language,” and it lends a new vividness and perspective to his later work; Ira Sachs’ marvelously compassionate “Love Is Strange” features career-defining performances from John Lithgow and Alfred Molina; Mike Leigh's unconventional biopic "Mr. Turner" is driven by spectacular images and Timothy Spall's half-bear, half-turnip performance as the iconoclastic 19th-century painter; Jesse Moss' stranger-than-fiction documentary "The Overnighters" tells the Steinbeck-like story of one tormented small-town preacher in a North Dakota oil boomtown; Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is better than anyone would have expected, built around David Oyelowo’s smoldering performance as Martin Luther King Jr.; J.K. Simmons dominates the screen as Miles Teller’s sadistic musical mentor in Damien Chazelle’s claustrophobic and compelling “Whiplash.”