This was a good year for movies — no, not one for the books, not something people will be talking about for years, not 1939 or 1933 or even 2009 — but solidly good. Like most years, it had one hands-down masterpiece (“Boyhood”) and a handful of near-great films, among them “Birdman” and “A Most Violent Year.”
Yet the true measure of any year’s cinematic health is not in the number of great movies made, but rather in the number of good movies produced.
In 2014, there were many respectable entries, such as “Whiplash,” Gone Girl,” “The One I Love” and “At Middleton.” This meant that at every point in the year, there was something in theaters worth seeing. Even dystopian action films suddenly got more intelligent this year (“Lucy,” “Snowpiercer” and “Edge of Tomorrow”), and comedy continued to be bold and outlandish (“22 Jump Street,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “Top Five”), which for some viewers meant coarse, but for others meant honest.
It wasn’t all good news. Our era’s most unfortunate box office trend was not reversed in 2014. Up through the 1970s, some of the best movies of the year were also the biggest box office hits. But in 2014, genuinely bad movies like “Transformers 4” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” continued to be box office gold. That probably won’t change for a long time.
Highs: Sam Shepard threatening Michael C. Hall in “Cold and July,” the opening-credits sequence in “Rob the Mob,” the scene inside the house in “Fury,” the robbery scene in “Eastern Boys,” Patricia Arquette talking about how she’d hoped life would be better in “Boyhood,” and Liam Neeson yelling, “I’m an alcoholic!” in “Non-Stop.”
Lows: The profitability of greed (making “The Hobbit” into three films, and “Mockingjay” into two), and the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Most valuable players: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle” and “Beyond the Lights”), Jessica Chastain (“Interstellar,” “A Most Violent Year”) and Brendan Gleeson (“Calvary”).
Most improved: Keira Knightley. Maybe she’s not improved. Maybe she’s just finally being cast in a way that capitalizes on her natural vivacity. In either case, she got rid of her corset and was terrific in three pictures — “The Imitation Game,” “Laggies” and “Begin Again.”
1. Boyhood A great film that expanded what narrative features can express, this fictional account of a boy’s life, from ages 6 through 18, was filmed over the course of 12 years and edited so that watching it was like life, with no jarring markers between each year, just one day flowing into the next. As there was nothing ever quite like it before, the power of this approach had to be experienced to be appreciated.
2. Birdman Shot as if it were one long take, this Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film was more than an amazing feat of cinematography and choreography, and it was certainly more than a gimmick. It was an immersion into the mind of its central character — a former movie superhero (Michael Keaton) putting a play up on Broadway — and a perceptive glimpse into an actor’s life.
3. A Most Violent Year This is the surprise of the season, a movie set in 1981, centering on the home heating business, that turns out to be riveting, and just as much about the struggle to survive as was director J.C. Chandor’s previous film, “All Is Lost.” Seemingly languorous, this is tightly plotted, a movie made up entirely of strong scenes, featuring outstanding performances from Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and Albert Brooks. Don’t miss it.
4. Third Person: This underappreciated and often misunderstood film — far and away director Paul Haggis’s best picture — told several stories at once, uniting the narratives, not around a single issue (as he did in “Crash”), but around an emotional state, one of longing and dislocation. It was a risky effort, hugely ambitious, and, along with “Boyhood,” it’s one of the two movies this year to extend the reach of cinema. This is one worth seeking out and meeting halfway.
5. Calvary One of the smartest and most impassioned films about Christianity in recent memory, John Michael McDonagh’s odd drama hid its deep intent behind a mask of grimness mixed with absurdity. Brendan Gleeson plays a priest in a small Irish village who is told, in the confessional, that he’s going to be murdered in exactly one week. In the meantime, he must deal with a flock possessed by demons — not demons as we know them from horror movies, but demons all the same.
6. Fury For three-quarters of its running time, writer-director David Ayer’s film is one of the most uncompromising war films ever made, a masterpiece of unrelenting darkness. And then in the last quarter, the darkness lifts slightly, and the movie becomes more conventional — good, but conventional. So it’s not quite great, but great enough to be among the year’s best.
7. Chef Jon Favreau wrote and directed this warm, shambling story of a chef (Favreau), who has made compromises for success, and is now looking to find his way back to basics — discovering himself as a father, and rediscovering his love of cooking.
8. Big Eyes: The art direction and compositions in this Tim Burton film, about the artist Margaret Keane and her husband, Walter Keane, are meticulous and stunning. On a visual level, it’s one of the most intelligent and thought-out films of the year. The story is fascinating, as well, and the acting, by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, is first rate.
9. The Galapagos Affair Documentarians Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine uncovered a remarkable story, about settlers from central Europe who immigrated to the Galapagos in search of paradise, but who found themselves in hell. Geller and Goldfine told the story through gorgeous graphics, remarkable home-movie footage and the words of the settlers themselves, as read by Cate Blanchett and Diane Kruger, among others. The result was one of the year’s best films.
10. Rob the Mob Two nitwits in love decide to augment their income by robbing mafia social clubs, in this only-in-New-York true story, set in the 1990s, featuringMichael Pitt and, in a star-making performance, Nina Arianda.