Short Ends and Leader's Best Movies of 2014

From brazen biopics to murky examinations of marriage, Short Ends and Leader's picks for 2014's best flicks are a compelling bunch.

What was the best film of (insert year here)?

Critics get asked this question a lot. Perhaps too much. Unlike aged steaks, or wine vintages, films often take a while to work their way into your psyche. You struggle with the themes, or you make rash, kneejerk judgments that, later, come back to add a layer of illegitimacy to your otherwise learned opinion.

Then, after 12 months of screenings, after 365 days of streaming links, Oscar PR, studio shilling, and countless combinations of the good, the bad, and the downright dopey, we are asked to wrap things up in a neat little list, a consensus compendium which does something no film reviewer is totally capable of: determining the very best of a varied artform. Can you argue that animation is better or worse than foreign filmmaking? Can horror be part of the discussion when so many of the genre's examples are rotten, at best?

Still, like Sisyphus and that damn rock, we press on. We wade through the dozens of last minute entries, try and remember narratives and performances from 11 months previous, and pray we don't miss an important title or allow our personal preferences to mar a more meaningful discussion. In the case of 2014, there were a lot of "almosts": The Imitation Game, Unbroken, and The Theory of Everything being good examples. Each of these are quality films, but are their fictionalized bios really worthy of end-of-the-year shout outs? The Lego Movie and Big Hero 6 were sensational, but do they belong here? Documentaries like Jodorowsky's Dune can redefine an entire property and filmmaker, but can it also be one of the season's most celebrated? After picking through such suspicions, Short Ends and Leader has come up with its 10 Best Films of 2014. For us, film is about a lasting impact, and these are the titles we'll be thinking about in years -- and decades -- to come.

10. The Raid 2
If the original Raid was director Gareth Evans' Reservoir Dogs, this sensational sequel skips past Pulp Fiction and goes right into Jackie Brown territory. Sure, the sensational actions scenes are still intact, cranked up way past eleven, but this time out, the expat auteur is out to bring more dramatic elements into his storytelling. The result is like a martial arts Godfather, the standard narrative turning more and more operatic as Evans and his cast expand on the first film's undercover cop concept. And unlike its Hollywood counterparts that pull back on all the bone crushing and ass kicking, this movie turns the mandatory mayhem into something quite extraordinary.

9. Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Once you get past the Michael Keaton/Batman, Riggan Thomas/Birdman stuff and overlook the "single shot" gimmick, what you wind up with here is a decent deconstruction of show business. Not as good as its obvious inspirations -- 8&1/2 and All That Jazz, to name two -- but pretty terrific nonetheless. What sells this, however, outside of director Alejandro González Iñárritu's control of narrative, is the acting. Everyone here is worthy of Oscar consideration, from the once and future Bruce Wayne to Edward Norton and Emma Stone. Even the open-ended finale, which suggests one thing and yet may mean another, works within the confines of the characters.

8. The Babadook
Horror is all about mood and atmosphere. Sure, sudden shocks and unexpected jolts work on your nerves, but if you carefully craft a foundation of fear, and then continuously twist the tone until your audience can't stand it anymore, the results will stay with them for a long, long time. First time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent surpasses most of the so called masters to show an entire genre how it's done, and the results rip right down to the very source of your soul. Sure, the domestic set-up between mother and son adds to the tension, but the real star here is the storytelling. Kent keeps turning up the dread, making her monster into an instant macabre icon.

7. Snowpiercer
The backstory involved with this film's release was just as intriguing as the movie we ended up seeing. Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein demanded cuts and changes to Bong Joon-Ho's adaptation of the French sci-fi comic, but the director refused. After months of bickering, the compromise was final cut for the filmmaker, and a very limited release for the film. Still, fans felt the victory as Bong braved the waters of onscreen dystopia to turn his first English language effort into a certified classic. With a solid allegorical center (just like the genre favors) and some amazing performances (Tilda Swinton), what could have been a fiasco on all fronts became a speculative fiction triumph.

6. Gone Girl
This is David Fincher "going commercial", i.e. taking on a big time best seller and turning it into a masterpiece on failing marriage and interpersonal turmoil. Ben Affleck is the spouse in the center of a media firestorm over his missing wife. Rosamund Pike is the "better half" who may or may not be MIA. Then, outsiders interlope into their nuptial power struggle, resulting in one of the most amazing thrillers since Fincher's own Panic Room. No one understands the gloom and doom inherent in the cinematic style better than the amazing auteur here. While not his best, it is right up there with his finest.

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