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The Best Films of 2014

Spanning a Truffaut-indebted magnum opus to a comeback vehicle for Michael Keaton, this collection of films is an eclectic representation of 2014's best.

30 - 21

Film: Northern Light

Director: Nick Bentgen

Cast: Walt Komarnizki, Marie Cox, Rebecca Marenbach, Emily Wolfgang, Isaac Wolfgang

Studio: Icarus Films

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-northernlight-poster-200.jpg

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Northern Light
Nick Bentgen

The road looks endless. Tracking along a snowy highway in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the opening shot in Northern Light is both breathtaking and daunting. Snow flecks against a windshield, trees stretch into the gray sky as, gradually, another vehicle appears in the distance, hard to see. It's as if you're moving and not moving at the same time, pressing forward and pushed back. In these early moments, shaped by a gorgeous strings score by composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns, Northern Light feels revelatory, introducing a world as familiar as it is incredible. And this is only one of many endless roads you'll discover here, as the film follows the experiences of three working class families, as they plan for and participate in an annual 500 mile-long snowmobile race in Sault Ste. Marie. Alternating between brief, intensely present moments and long, ponderable stretches of the future, the film connects strands of experiences with an unusual grace and respect. Walt spends as much time working in the garage on his skidoo as he does in his 18-wheeler, driving forever to support his family, worrying about money with his wife Becky, looking forward to the birth of his grandchild, even if he's not quite sure what comes next. His back is troubling him, so driving -- as a means to make a living and a chance at a $10,000 first prize -- is increasingly challenging. Cynthia Fuchs

Film: Only Lovers Left Alive

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Cast: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright

Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-onlyloversleftalive-poster-200.jpg

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Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch

Vampires are overused. Scrubbed up and prettified to the point they can be nonthreatening romantic partners for teenagers, today's cinematic vampires are, well, pretty toothless. With Only Lovers Left Alive, director Jim Jarmusch has managed to salvage the vampire mystique. His vamps are sexy, mysterious, brooding, and dangerous in equal measures. Adam (Tom Hiddleston, proving he deserves the admiration of a thousand Tumblrs) and Eve (Tilda Swinton, in one of her many standout performances this year) don't do much throughout the course of the film -- the two reunited lovers mostly bum around Adam's Detroit home -- but throughout their conversations, Jarmusch manages to slip in elbow-to-the-ribs jokes about history, ruminations about marriage, and most importantly, a meditation into the creation of art itself. And Hiddleston and Swinton make it look so, so cool. Marisa LaScala

Film: Out in the Night

Director: Blair Doroshwalther

Cast: Venice Brown, Terrain Dandridge, Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson, Karen Thompson, Tanisha Johnson, Kimma Walker, Dell Barron Glo Ross, Des Marshal, Laura Italiano

Studio: ITVS

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-outinthenight-poster-200.jpg

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Out in the Night
Blair Doroshwalther

"I was scared." In August 2006, Renata Hill and six friends were arrested in the West Village. As she remembers it, they were walking outside the IFC Theater when a man accosted and then attacked them, leading to a fight when the women defended themselves. When police officers arrived on the scene, the man claimed the women assaulted him, at which point they were arrested, processed, and sent to Rikers Island, where they were locked in the fearsome BullPen, left to sleep on the floor. The ordeal was "long, drawn out," recounts Renata, "It was real scary." As Patreese Johnson, 19 years old at the time, puts it, "We didn't know what we were getting ourselves into."

They couldn't have known that they were headed into a legal nightmare, that the charges against them would be premised on other people's fears, that their limited options would be shaped by sensational media coverage. That coverage and the trials are recalled in Out in the Night. In tracing the confusions of that night and the chaos that came after, Out in the Night makes use of some familiar documentary elements. These include interviews with the New Jersey 4 (that is, the four members of the group who pled not guilty, and whose convictions and sentences raised public concerns about the legal cases), their family members and lawyers, experts and court transcripts. The film goes on to show the many effects of fear resulting from this system, what it means to feel perpetually scared of people who claim the right to act on their fears of you. It's not just that the police look after their own or neglect to punish their own, but also that disrespect for some people's lives is pervasive in the broader culture: black bodies are at risk everywhere, especially, as the film makes clear, "out In the night". Cynthia Fuchs

Film: The Raid 2 (The Raid: Beernedal)

Director: Gareth Evans

Cast: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara, Tio Pakusadewo, Alex Abbad

Studio: Sony Classics

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-raid2-poster-2001.jpg

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The Raid 2 (The Raid: Beernedal)
Gareth Evans

The Raid 2 is one of the best action movies ever made. At a time when the genre has been plagued with an overuse of digital effects, Gareth Evans wisely goes back to the basics. The film is void of the loud explosions often seen in the Transformers franchise; instead, Evans highlights the physicality of his performers as they beat one another to a bloody pulp. Those who can stomach the gruesome violence and non-stop pummeling (the film is 150 minutes) will find themselves having just experienced the most artfully constructed film of 2014. Action cinema is too often overlooked by critics and awards groups, and The Raid 2 reminds us that, when done right, the genre represents cinema at its most vital. The set pieces are among the most inspired and beautifully choreographed in cinema history, and they become more exciting and impressive as the film progresses. You don't need to watch the first film to believe the hype. The Raid 2 is a new action classic. Jon Lisi

Film: Return to Homs

Director: Talal Derki

Cast: Talal Derki, Abdul Basset Saroot, Ossama al Homsi

Studio: Proaction Film

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-returntohoms-poster-2001.jpg

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Return to Homs
Talal Derki

"Even in my darkest nightmares, I couldn't have imagined the city as it is today. Nothing interrupts this silence, but the chirping of birds and the roaring of bombardment." Talal Derki is walking as he speaks in voiceover, walking through what's left of Homs. That is to say, he's "walking through" quite literally. Certainly, he's crossing from one room to another, but more dauntingly, as he walks, the camera follows him from one home to another: he's walking not through doorways but through holes in walls, holes created with hammers, so that people who have not evacuated the city, who mean to fight and document the fight, can pass under some modicum of safety and cover, unseen by snipers and men with rocket launchers, waiting to shoot at anyone they spot. This passage, at once painstaking and casual, is startling the first time you see it in Return to Homs, a dark nightmare that you probably haven't imagined. But then, you see it again, and then again, in scenes that mark both the filmmakers' continual returns to Homs, in western Syria, and you begin to understand that what you're seeing is not only men in transition, but also, the ways that Homs, the city once known as the "capital of the revolution", is changing, drastically and chillingly. Cynthia Fuchs

Film: Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

Director: Sam Fleischner

Cast: Jesus Valez, Andrea Suarez, Azul Zorrilla, Tenoch Huerta Mejia, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Studio: Oscilloscope Pictures

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-standclearclosingdoors-poster-200.jpg

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Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
Sam Fleischner

Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) holds a sneaker. The camera in Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is close on his fingers as he rubs the faux suede, vaguely purple, and the Supra crown logo. He leans in to smell the shoe, his glasses glinting in the dim light. A pop tune plays on the shop's sound system, a speedy beat that links Ricky's close-up with a subsequent longer shot, his sister Carla's (Azul Zorrilla) legs, in textured tights and boots, as she waits for him, restless. "Come on Ricky," she says, "We gotta get cat food." Ricky remains focused on the shoe, as Carla walks into his frame, hoping to keep their disagreement between them, invisible to the boy she spots across the room, a boy trying on shoes, briefly looking her way when he hears Ricky's voice rise. While Carla's nervousness, her hope not to make a scene, makes her like most other 15-year-olds, very aware of the world around her, Ricky, 13 and has Asperger's syndrome, lives another experience, one they can't share. If their differences seem obvious, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors goes on to consider their similarities, the sensory and emotional fragments that make anyone's experience a mix of order and chaos. Cynthia Fuchs

Film: Two Days, One Night

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salee

Studio: Artificial Eye

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/twodaysonenight_film_poster200.jpg

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Two Days, One Night
Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

This moving neorealist domestic drama exposes working class hardship without sentimentality and is the Dardenne Brothers' most compelling film since 2005's Palme d'Or winner L'enfant. Still recovering from a devastating bout of depression, a woman (Marion Cotillard) returns to work to discover her co-workers have voted to lay her off in order to secure themselves a €1,000 bonus. A commitment to realism through long takes and imperfect compositions allow Cotillard, one of France's most consistently stunning actresses, to thrive at a level of nuance we've missed from roles limited by quicker pacing. She brings to life a delicate, honest depiction of major depression; one defined not by flat sadness, but a heartbreaking sense of guilt over her mere participation in others' lives. Tight, handheld camera work ensures this dialogue-heavy drama is packed with moments of tension and release. Taylor Sinople

Film: Under the Skin

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Krystof Hádek, Jessica Mance, Scott Dymond, Joe Szula, Michael Moreland, Lee Fanning, Ben Mills, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Jeremy McWilliams

Studio: A24

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-undertheskin-poster-200.jpg

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Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer

Perhaps the most atmospheric film you'll see all year, Under the Skin is a masterpiece rumination on postmodernism that explores cultural alienation in a very literal way. If you've yet to come across the attention-grabbing logline, here it is: Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who has come to Earth to prey on human men. English director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) shot some scenes here with hidden cameras and real people, and hinges everything on whether Johansson is interesting enough to spend much of Under the Skin studying. She is. Roaming around Glasgow and attempting to reproduce human behavior, she uses men's obsession with the surface level, her skin, to seduce them into a deadly trap. But after viewing the film, it will be, for more than one reason, what is under the skin that audiences will find unshakable. With opportunities to read the story different ways, each of them satisfying, Under the Skin is not a science fiction piece so much as a feast of intellect and style, spiked with the haunting thought that you could pass Johansson's character on the street and be none the wiser. Taylor Sinople

Film: Whiplash

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang

Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/w/whiplash_filmreview_poster200.jpg

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Damien Chazelle

In Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, music student and jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) tells his girlfriend that he strives to be one of the greatest performers of all time. In reality, it's actor Teller and his co-star -— J.K. Simmons, playing Terence Fletcher, Neiman's teacher and bandleader —- who really seem to be making a play at greatness. The film is about their conflict, and how Neiman believes he deserves greater acclaim as a drummer, with Fletcher arguing Neiman needs to pay more dues. Their back-and-forth brings the movie to a fever pitch —- whiplash, indeed —- with Teller and Simmons portraying the extremes of anger, frustration, and ambition without being afraid to show the egoism and callousness that go with them. It all builds to a climax that's nothing short of virtuosic, both musically and cinematically. Marisa LaScala

Film: The Zero Theorem

Director: Terry Gilliam

Cast: Christoph Waltz, Gwendoline Christie, Rupert Friend, Ray Cooper, Lily Cole, David Thewlis, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Peter Stormare

Studio: Well Go USA

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/thezerotheorem_filmreview_poster200.jpg

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The Zero Theorem
Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam's latest masterpiece, The Zero Theorem, is a meditation on modern depression, anxiety, and self-imposed isolation in a world dominated by corporations, nine-to-five numbercrunching jobs, and ever-evolving technology. Like Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman, it dares, in a prejudiced world, to treat mental health as a serious topic worthy of respect, and does so in a passionate, sympathetic and compelling way. Intentionally recalling Gilliam's past works as it does -- Qohen's (Christoph Waltz)'s shaved head and transparent rain coat evoke images of Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys, for instance – the film finds cinematic shortcuts that make a potentially difficult tale remarkably easy to connect with. A tragedy in the form of a satire, Pat Rushin's script displays a unique understanding of human behavior and would have been done a disservice under the command of a lesser director or any other company of actors. Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, and Matt Damon give career-best performances, and young Lucas Hedges, as the son of Damon's amoral corporate overlord, prove he's one to watch. Resonant, unsettling and deeply profound, The Zero Theorem is a colossal achievement. It's worth seeing, even if you may miss your call by doing so. Kevin Brettauer

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