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Movie Blog: Top 10 Movies Of 2014

(credit: IFC Films)

In the rear-view mirror, the movies of 2014 look exhausting. So many of them kept us in our seats for well over two hours, and just as many failed to reach their creators' lofty ambitions. First among these was probably Interstellar, which couldn't be more different from last year's pirouetting space hit Gravity. Christopher Nolan's gorgeous and intricate colossus collapsed under the weight of its own structure, even with its moments of brilliance. Similarly, Paul Thomas Anderson couldn't quite manage to distill the wheeling madness of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice on screen in a way that wasn't more than just madness. Even Peter Jackson's non-stop brawling Hobbit capstone didn't feel like a proper farewell to his decades-long reign over Middle Earth. Perhaps Star Wars and Jurassic Park will fare better…

Yet while the giants struggled this year, others flourished. The Lego Movie was a prime example that kids movies don't have to suck. Guardians of the Galaxy, with its winning combination of Chris Pratt and a kickass soundtrack, brought a pulse back to the superhero franchise machine. Meanwhile, on another level, Gone Girl reminded us that well-done Hollywood is tough to top when the industry brings its A-game. Still, only one of these movies (the one about toys) made our list. And considering that TV has won even more of our attention span with shows like Hannibal and Game of Thrones, it's interesting that most of our favorite films wouldn't likely work when stretched out over multiple episodes, not to mention several seasons. If anything, the joy of cinema appears to be in works that burst forth with striking imagination, style and emotional force. This is the holy land between YouTube and Netflix binge sessions.

Below are our top films of the year. Jonathan Glazer's hypnotic Under the Skin made both our lists, and each of us honored the debuts of two promising female directors: Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook). The two docs that made the cut both focus their lenses on humanity, but in very different places: a North Dakota oil town and a Nepalese temple. Then comes the work of the auteurs, whose creative visions we can't help but marvel at, puzzle over and devour. Lastly, these lists reflect us. To make a list is not only to define one's taste or worldview, but to offer a glimpse into what makes one happy or crushes one's soul. So, here we are. Have at us in the comments below. -- Jonathon Sharp & Eric Henderson.

(Here are our top 10 lists from 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010. It goes without saying that neither of us managed to see every movie that was released in the Twin Cities last year --or half of them -- and as such both lists are subject to the inevitable asterisk mark and explanation that they could've been radically different top 10s had we managed to live inside the theater.)

Jonathon Sharp

Eric Henderson

01. The Grand Budapest Hotel

(Wes Anderson; USA)
Hate on Wes Anderson all you want, but no movie I saw this year was as enjoyable as The Grand Budapest Hotel. Besides being charming and beautiful, funny and imaginative, the film fills one with a surprisingly deep nostalgia for a time long gone, for that 19th Century European seriousness in regards to etiquette and honor. In a way, the film is an elegy for a civilization, or aspects of one, destroyed by global war, poverty and a string of dictators. On another level, Budapest is just super fun. I left the theater feeling as though I made friends. The happiness lasted hours.

01. Stranger By The Lake

(Alain Guiraudie; France)
If Alfred Hitchcock exchanged icy, cool blonde women in favor of dark, mysterious, mustachioed men, the result might come within earshot of Alain Guiraudie's breakthrough Stranger By The Lake. In what was a banner year for expanding the horizons for no-holds-barred gay representation in entertainment (see also HBO's dramatic series Looking), this sexually explicit and not even remotely "safe" cruising thriller truly upped the ante. Few other films, gay or straight, truly captured the thrill of the chase and the terror of attraction.

02. Boyhood

(Richard Linklater; USA)
The word "masterpiece" is thrown around a lot, yet I'm not sure what else to call Boyhood. It's just exceptional in so many ways. First among these is that it was made over the course of 12 years, showing the main character, a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), literally grow up before the camera. The concept is so simple, yet unprecedented. And the investment in Coltrane, and his fantastic co-stars, pays off. Captured on camera are so many small, beautiful, memory-jerking details that the project is just as much a document of recent American history as it is an examination of youth.

02. Under The Skin

(Jonathan Glazer; USA)
And I spoke too soon. One other film from 2014 actually did approach Stranger By The Lake's disquieting take on sexual attraction, though in ways even more abstract and picturesque. Director Jonathan Glazer -- still perhaps best known for his string of innovative music videos including Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" and UNKLE's "Rabbit in Your Headlights" -- plunged headlong into the abyss of darkly beautiful seduction with Under the Skin. It's among the few nominally sci-fi films to deserve mention alongside Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky.

03. Under The Skin

(Jonathan Glazer; USA)
Style for days. Like the Scottish guys Scarlett Johansson's character entices, I became submerged in Under the Skin's murky depths. Although the film is about aliens and their encounters with humans, its allure doesn't come from the sci-fi aspects. If anything, it comes from a story that's only vaguely apparent, as well as its haunting visuals and sound design. Director Jonathan Glazer deserves a lot of credit for not holding our hands, and just letting the dark waters surround us.

03. Stray Dogs

(Tsai Ming-liang; Taiwan)
By this point in the list, it's probably pretty apparent that mainstream movies were so not my jam this year. (Well, every year, but this year in particular was a pretty miserable slog in the multiplex.) So take it with the requisite grain of salt when I tell you that I found this Taiwanese tone poem about people living on the skids in Taipei -- in some ways, sort of like a slow-motion version of Akira Kurosawa's trash heap-bound Dodes'ka-den -- to be utterly transfixing. Even during ... no especially during those 15-minute long static shots showing his characters staring at a mural.

04. The Overnighters

(Jesse Moss; USA)
What this documentary captures is almost unbelievably tragic, so much so that it goes down like classic literature. Exploring the darker side of North Dakota's oil boom, Director Jesse Moss points his lens on the tension between the out-of-towners looking for work and the state's longtime residents. What emerges is a story about a selfless Lutheran pastor trying to help the homeless, and the obstacles that undo him. It's devastating, and I don't think I've yet recovered.

04. Manakamana

(Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez; Nepal)
As I wrote earlier, when previewing this ethnographic doc for MSPIFF, "you might say that nothing happens in Manakamana. Or you could say that everything happens. Or you could eschew either/or logic entirely and succumb to the inscrutable 'in between.'" Thrillingly focused on its one goal, which is to observe humanity (and, in the case of one 10-minute shot, goats) in all its curiosity.

05. Force Majeure

(Ruben Östlund; Sweden)
A ski vacation in the French Alps never looked so miserable. After a middle-aged man fails to protect his wife and children in the face of an avalanche, his marriage descends through the moguls. Bergman comes to mind when the couple fights in teary-eyed, hotel-hallway madness, and yet Force Majeure isn't exactly a downer. It features 2014's best beard (on the face of Kristofer Hivju) while offering the possibility of glorious mountaintop redemption.

05. Only Lovers Left Alive

(Jim Jarmusch; USA)
Not a bad year for bloodsuckers, though Jonathon and I both selected different offerings. (See his #6, which was a strong runner-up for my own list.) I've never really cottoned much to Jim Jarmusch's aesthetic, which reached some sort of disaffected nadir in The Limits of Control. Leave it to someone as chilly as Tilda Swinton to pump fresh blood into both Jarmusch's work and the vampire genre in general.

06. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

(Ana Lily Amirpour; Iran)
Probably the coolest vampire movie of the year. The setting is an Iranian ghost town, it's in black-and-white, and the bloodsucker wears a hijab and rides a skateboard. On top of that, the soundtrack is phenomenal. All of this great stuff revolves around a story that reverberates with the simmering intensity of young love. The debut feature of director Ana Lily Amirpour shows she's a filmmaker to keep tabs on.

06. Closed Curtain

(Jafar Panahi & Kambuzia Partovi; Iran)
While perhaps not quite reaching the majestic heights of his previous venture into filmmaking under duress, the startling 2011 masterpiece This is Not a Film, Jafar Panahi's Closed Curtain serves as a vital enrichment of his going concerns. Even if that's not really your bag, it also features unquestionably the best performance by a dog this year.

07. The Dance of Reality

(Alejandro Jodorowsky; Chile)
Perhaps the diehard Jodorowsky fan in me is showing. If so, I don't care. The 85-year-old master hadn't released a film in 23 years, and in 2014 we were lucky enough to get something from his unmistakable imagination. Moreover, what was on screen was a window into Jodorowsky's childhood, in relationship to family and religion, struggle and sacrafice. And as a bonus, we also got Jodorowsky's Dune, which reminded us that Jodo could've beaten George Lucas to the space epic punch. Reality, not to mention the state of current cinema, could have been so different...

07. The Strange Little Cat

(Ramon Zürcher; Germany)
I'd be tempted to say this one features 2014's best performance by a cat, but in actuality, the titular cat here isn't even remotely the strangest thing about director Ramon Zürcher's petite experiment, which also boasts one of the most active, bizarre sound designs in recent memory. If Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman was remade as a family comic strip, it would probably go a little something like this.

08. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

(Isao Takahata; Japan)
I'm not a huge anime fan, yet no movie this year was as refreshing to me as this whirling gem. The simplicity of the watercolor and the dreamy story soothed my CGI-weary eyes. At times, I admit I nearly fell asleep, but that's when the masters at Studio Ghibli would give their project wings. Princess Kaguya soars. The film is uplifting in the full sense of the term. Even now, I watch the trailer to get a bump of inspiration.

08. Mr. Turner

(Mike Leigh; England)
Though it's rare I don't at least like or love a new Mike Leigh joint, I'm hard pressed to say that most of his films boast a distinctive visual style. Not the case with Mr. Turner, which features not just possibly the lead performance of the year in Timothy Spall's grunting rendition of famed painter J.M.W. Turner, but also perhaps the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous old school cinematography of the year to boot. And as per usual, Leigh's graceful orchestration of human behavior remains without peer. I am religiously opposed to biopics, so Mr. Turner is also a minor miracle.

09. Snowpiercer

(Joon-ho Bong; South Korea/USA)
When I wanted to put an action movie on here, it was between this and The Raid 2. While The Raid's fight scenes are unparalleled, it's hard to top Snowpeicer's constantly changing sci-fi locomotive setting. There's just too much fun (and allegory) to be had on that train, which is doomed to carry the last of humanity on a planet destroyed by climate change. It's a ride hard to take only once.

09. The Babadook

(Jennifer Kent; Australia)
Try to ignore the "scariest movie I've ever seen" hype from William Friedkin's corner. While The Babadook is undeniably thrilling, its unfair to force it to stand in comparison with the likes of The ShiningPsycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Exorcist. What it does do that all those other great horror films do is to transmute a human emotion (in this case grief) into a genre-based abstraction. And Essie Davis is straight fierce.

10. Nymphomaniac: Part I

(Lars Von Trier; Denmark)
Part 1 made the cut because it surprised me so much. I expected Lars von Trier, the infamous director of Antichrist and Melancholia, to push me more, to perhaps ride the line between art and pornography. Instead, the film focuses on metaphors for sex. Animal metaphors, and fly fishing, of all things. I didn't know what to make of it initially, and I had some of the best movie conversations of the year with others who saw it. Then, of course, there's Uma Thurman. She was only in Nymphomaniac for a moment, but her wailing rage was unforgettable.

10. The LEGO Movie

(Phil Lord & Christopher Miller; USA)
Yes. Everything IS awesome.

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