Honorable Mentions (cinematic highlights from movies that did NOT make it to the top of my list):
The cinematography of "Enemy" / "野火 (Fires on the Plain)" / "'71"
The character design of Baymax from "Big Hero 6" / Paddington from "Paddington"
The film music of "Die geliebten Schwestern (The Beloved Sisters)" / "The Cut" / "Men, Women & Children"
The visual effects of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"
The on-screen couple Shailene Woodley & Ansel Elgort in "The Fault in Our Stars" / Ghilherme Lobo & Fabio Audi in "Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (The Way He Looks)" / Jim Broadbent & Lindsay Duncan in "Le Week-End"
The musical number "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" from "The Skeleton Twins" / "Diamonds" from "Bande de filles (Girlhood)" / "Walking on Sunshine" from "Camille redouble (Camille Rewinds)"
The performance by Marion Cotillard as Sandra in "Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night)"
The on-screen duo Juliette Binoche & Kristen Stewart in "Clouds of Sils Maria" / Judi Dench & Steve Coogan in "Philomena"
The art direction of "黃金時代 (The Golden Era)" / "Under the Skin" / "En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)"
The screenplay of "殯棺 (The Coffin in the Mountain)" / "Il capitale umano (Human Capital)"
The ensemble cast of "Pride"
The action choreography of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" / "용의자 (The Suspect)"
Runners-up (all-around solid movies just missing my top 10), in alphabetical order:
1. 10.000 Km
2. 白日焰火 (Black Coal, Thin Ice)
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
7. The Lego Movie
9. Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
10. X-Men: Days of Future Past
And finally, the cream of the crop- out of the 230 movies I saw in 2014 (a personal record!), these are my favorite 10, in alphabetical order:
1. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
Looking classically beautiful while exposing the ugliest manifestation of human nature imaginable, this account of a man's journey through hell is a mercilessly immersive experience as well as a devastatingly powerful reminder of what atrocities we're capable of when blinded by hate and bigotry. British director Steve McQueen convincingly recreates an idyllic America sweltering with fear and abuse, smelling like blood and hopelessness. In dignifying the torture scenes with reverent, violent honesty and a complete lack of reservation, every lash feels palpable, painfully necessary. His outstanding cast of actors, be it the warmly emotive Chiwetel Ejiofor, the nakedly truthful Lupita Nyong'o or the frightfully serene Michael Fassbender, gives the oppression temperature and puts the tremor in every plea. The detailed, considered production and costume design caught in cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's wondrously lit frames is not just a sight to behold but envelopes you further in a world of textured, wounded memories.
2. Begin Again (dir. John Carney)
Somewhat unrealistic in its bumps-free development and unchallenged resolution, this almost-romance by Irish writer/director John Carney nevertheless captures the collision between two lost stars and its momentary splendor with such uncanny precision it transcends language and feels purely intuitive, melodic. And it's not just that the movie's soundtrack features an intoxicating mix of winning tunes as well as drop-dead gorgeous original compositions by Gregg Alexander, it's how the songs are used here as an integral part of storytelling that reveals a fundamental understanding of music's transporting, uniting, healing power and truly wows. Keira Knightley is a vision of tearful realizations and uncertain emotions; the perfectly cast Mark Ruffalo brings so much humanity to a potential douchebag character it's entirely magnetizing. The scenes of them entering Times Square joined by their private playlists or wordlessly parting ways are things of such beauty they leave you elated, stricken and, from an even deeper place, just thankful.
3. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Bracing, ballsy, hypnotically fluid and unstoppably kinetic, this comedic drama about a washed-up superhero actor waging a comeback on Broadway is a virtuoso dance between the realms of reality and fantasy. Mexican writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu proves he's a master of precision, balancing so many elements in dangerously long, unedited takes it's as breathtaking to watch as a tightrope walker's performance at perilous heights. The cast led by a luminously weary, conflicted Michael Keaton is a true ensemble, with all the pieces complementing, challenging one another in a symphony of ideas and personalities. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera works miracles again as it takes on the confined but volatile terrain of the theater. Explosive on stage and even more alive behind the curtain, all the craziness is captured in a heady parade of impressions astonishing in its fluency. Providing the sonic backdrop and completing the psychic landscape of a haunted man is Antonio Sanchez's exciting drum score, each beat a tease, a taunt, a toast.
4. Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) (dir. Dietrich Brüggemann)
Turns out there's no better way to explore religious fundamentalism in film than going back to the fundamentals. 14 near-static scenes representing the 14 stations Jesus made carrying the cross to crucifixion are all there is in this formally strict, ideally radical drama about a teenage girl ready to die for her beliefs. Instead of falling prey to the restrictive stylistic demands, however, something utterly, unshakably and nastily pure arises. Brilliantly feeding narrative discipline into character and atmosphere building, German writer/director Dietrich Brüggemann manages to create a fable-like vacuum in which the disparity between moral absolutes and earthen compromises becomes so sharpened it gets silly, scary, or both. Stripped of all technical distractions to reveal an isolated observation of human behavior, this mini-masterpiece is not just cool-headed but often feels downright cold-hearted. It's so chill to the touch, in fact, you can hardly tell whether it's trying to conceal a crusader's frown or a satirist's smirk.
5. Le meraviglie (The Wonders) (dir. Alice Rohrwacher)
Family stories are hard to get right because it's such an extraordinary place of shared experiences and contradictory emotions. It's a delight, then, to see one that's so insightfully written, sensitively directed and cohesively performed. Italian helmer Alice Rohrwacher trains her tender gaze on an ordinary household from the countryside whose uneventful existence heats up upon the arrival of a splashy TV-crew. With an unerring ear for authenticity, previously unknown aspirations and latent generational differences are laid out in a script as moving as it is unaffected. Through colorful anecdotes both cheerful and melancholic, that maddening, embarrassing, ultimately nurturing and redeeming familial bond is vividly described. Maria Alexandra Lungu and Agnese Graziani make for a tremendous sister-duo, selling with aplomb the happy glow of innocence and its gradual replacement by a worldly weight. A few surrealist touches from the director add to the visual dazzle of the picture and further enhance its mystic pull.
6. Phoenix (dir. Christian Petzold)
A magical ending to a film counts for a lot. And when you conclude a story about identity/pretense by having Nina Hoss, the queen of regal ambivalence, sing a jazzy version of "Speak Low" before it all fades into a sunny blur, the effect is, quite simply, spellbinding. The premise on which German writer/director Christian Petzold operates here- guilt, denial and the meaning of self- is highly interesting if not always rock solid in practice, leading to icky patches with plausibility issues. But then again, this is a movie about the subjective nature of our being and how our mind plays tricks on us in shock or self-preservation. In that sense, the team in front and behind the camera aces it, creating incredibly fragile, unreliable figures caught in extreme, overwhelming circumstances. The cast that also includes Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Kunzendorf, decked out in spiffy period costumes, is strong. Even more of a character is perhaps the tastefully rendered post-war Berlin: detached, deformed, but recklessly delectable.
7. Snowpiercer (dir. Joon-ho Bong)
As ridiculously overblown as the statement might sound, this movie does have everything. It's a conceptual sci-fi adventure with dramatic tension, political undertone, comic- albeit creepy- relief, and some kick-ass action sequences. With staggering ambition and superior craftsmanship, Korean director Joon-ho Bong cooks up a smorgasbord of genres that goes down without a hiccup. Worlds of wildly contrasting styles and color schemes materialize through the rich, imaginative production design, allowing the surprises to keep coming whenever the next cabin door opens. The snappy editing is responsible for the pulsating, suspenseful rhythm and the fierce combat choreography sends additional sparks throughout the film. A diverse group of gifted actors makes sure all the lofty fantasies about a dystopian future remain firmly anchored in basic, relatable human needs. Among them Chris Evans and Jamie Bell hold their own but it's the chameleonic Tilda Swinton as the clownishly demonic Minister Mason that steals the show.
8. Плем'я (The Tribe) (dir. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky)
There are definitely places during this 130-min long, spoken dialogue-free film set within a school for the deaf and mute that could be tightened up a bit. The fatigue from repitition is not altogether avoided and that stupendously savage ending evokes more suspicions than it asks legitimate questions. However, there's no denying the sheer audacity and inventiveness intrinsic to the telling of this story. Ukranian first-time feature director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky is downright fearless both in terms of sticking to the exclusive use of sign language and tackling the subject of inherent evil. Aided by some superb, mutely suggestive camerawork, his every step forward feels fresh, raw, unpredictable. And although part of the plot is bound to get lost in the gesticulating, how most of the (largely lascivious) turns of events is communicated at all speaks volumes about the intelligence of the filmmaking as well as what dirty cognitive wiring we share as a species. Imperfect but stunningly new and intensely original, one of a kind.
9. Turist (Force Majeure) (dir. Ruben Östlund)
It's unlikely one would have been made to feel more uncomfortable by any other film this past year, or more compelled to laugh and then, upon realizing the inappropriateness of the urge, slightly shamed about one's schadenfreude toward the unfortunate situation portrayed. Unsparing and incisively observant, this story about the marital repercussions from an avalanche accident by Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund is so relentlessly sharp it first cuts open the skin and then tears apart the scab again. In using the magnificent, secretly treacherous Alpine slopes as backdrop and dominant visual aid, the filmmaker blends unknowable natural elements with his dissection of modern masculinity and the result is striking in every sense. The two leads Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli are both terrific, mapping with great nuance the progression of their characters' mental state. Except for the vaguely metaphorical ending that's not necessarily a home-run, this is quite the rare gem that tickles and unsettles in equal measure.
10. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)
Rocking, sweating, bleeding, burning, this movie about the pedagogic relationship between a young jazz drummer and his band conductor that slowly descends into war is literally a tour de force. American writer/director Damien Chazelle is clearly driven by an indefatigable supply of passion when telling this story about expectation versus exploitation and that energy is felt throughout. Although many technical aspects of the film like editing or cinematography can feel a bit too unsubtle and inexpertly showy, the constant rush of hot blood that sends your head spinning and your feet stepping proves irresistibly winsome. Miles Teller impresses with a ruthlessly committed performance and J.K. Simmons, who commands the quiet menace, contemptuous rage and enigmatic motives of the dictator Fletcher, gives one of the year's most charismatic, repulsive, all-around fascinating on-screen creations. The final, drawn-out show-down between the two escalates to such dramatic heights it enters a blissfully trance-like territory that absolutely electrifies.