Here’s the greatest thing about the best films of 2014: You can see many of them right now across a variety of home video options, including Netflix. That tells me any number of these facts is true:
1. A higher-quality selection of films played throughout the year, instead of being stacked up in December like planes at O’Hare.
2. Films that have been released in the last 60 days to specifically catch Oscar buzz have not been worthy of that strategy.
3. More films are finding their way to us via less “traditional” distribution means.
Take your pick, this is all good news. Just about anything that shakes up Hollywood convention is good news. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you can come across some spectacularly good movies in more places. Where did I find my favorite film of 2014? It was an iTunes Pick of the Week.
Speaking of favorite films, here’s my annual best-of list for 2014 (my 16th year participating in such shenanigans), with details on how you can see each film right now. Why recommend movies if you don’t tell people where to find them?
10. Gone Girl
The first hour of David Fincher’s adaptation is so satisfyingly, cinematically sly, that a later detour into deep narrative disbelief still works. It’s just part of the fantasy, in which Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike revel in their characters’ individual and collective misery. Sociopathy has rarely been this searing.
:: Metacritic Rating: 79 | Domestic box office: $166 M
:: Available to purchase for streaming on Amazon and iTunes. Available for rent on January 13, 2015.
This Polish black-and-white drama may very well be the “artsy” movie that it sounds like. But what art it is. Crisp, powerfully composed, and beautifully shot, Pawel Pawlikowski’s tale of a young nun who suddenly discovers, and then chases, her past is a real stunner.
:: Metacritic Rating: 90 | Domestic box office: $3.7 M
:: Now available on Netflix streaming
8. Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
It was an absolute thrill to see Birdman without knowing a thing about the plot or how the film was shot. Sure, the cat’s out of the bag for many first-time viewers now, but that doesn’t take away from Birdman’s jazzy bite or happy surprises. Michael Keaton is wonderfully intense as a guy balancing between reality and fantasy – in a movie whose production does the same.
:: Metacritic Rating: 89 | Domestic box office: $23.9 M (as of 12.30)
:: Currently playing at 292 locations throughout the U.S.; Not yet available for home viewing, can be pre-ordered
Richard Linklater has now created two groundbreaking film entries: The Before Sunrise trilogy and this 12-year-long production of one family’s life seen through the eyes of a boy. I’ve got inside word that grown men were weeping at Sundance after Boyhood, and you can’t deny the pain that comes with watching your child grow up. But one of the many beauties of the film is that young Mason is more than just every kid – he’s each of us grown-ups too, feeling the years go by damn quick as we try to find our way. You wanna shed a tear? After watching Boyhood, immediately watch just the first scene again. Here’s a tissue.
:: Metacritic Rating: 100 (!) | Domestic box office: $24.2 M
:: Available to purchase for streaming on Amazon and iTunes. Available for rent on January 6, 2015.
6. The Lunchbox
Ritesh Batra paints a beautiful, melancholy character portrait in this overlooked film about a relationship carried out only via letters. A woman (Homeland’s Nimrat Kaur) discovers that her homemade lunches are being delivered to the wrong office worker, a soon-to-be retired accountant (the legendary Irrfan Khan), instead of her disinterested husband. Their friendship is dotted with gorgeous voiceover readings of their notes to one another, and Batra’s direction is both funny and remarkably poignant. The Lunchbox lends a warmth and humanity to the overcrowded city of Mumbai by focusing on just two people – and paying homage to the hard-working men of the city’s lunch delivery services.
:: Metacritic Rating: 76 | Domestic box office: $4.2 M
:: Available only for purchase on streaming services like Amazon and iTunes. Also available for rent via Netflix DVD.
The last vestiges of human life are forced into a caste system aboard a train that never stops running, in Bong Joon-Ho’s fantastical celebration of science-fiction and survivalist genres. As the untouchables in the rear of the train carry out a revolution by moving forward, each train section reveals another surprise hurdle or outrageous style. It’s Terry Gilliam and Ridley Scott and late-60s gothic and it’s about as creative a thriller as you’ll ever see. Oh, and it drew some attention by being named the Best Film of 2014 by the Boston Online Film Critics Association, of which I am a proud member.
:: Metacritic Rating: 84 | Domestic box office: $4.5 M
:: Now available on Netflix streaming.
4. Force Majeure
A father unexpectedly ditches his wife and kids for a fleeting moment during a ski vacation, and has his gender responsibility questioned as a result, in this Swedish treat from writer-director Ruben Östlund. With sharp and sometimes absurd wit, Östlund illustrates that men are conceited yet weak, women are resentful and vindictive, and we’re all just trying to figure it out. On the short list for Best Foreign Film Oscar, and rightfully so.
3. Two Days, One Night
Marion Cotillard seals her title of Most Astonishing Actress of 2014 with this no-frills, documentary-influenced drama from the Dardenne Brothers, about a woman who has one weekend to convince her co-workers not to vote for her dismissal when Monday comes. No music. No close-ups. Just superb, stripped-down filmmaking that gives Cotillard full command of the film. Whether Cotillard’s Sandra is making her kids’ beds, collapsing into depression or nervously drinking bottle after bottle of water, the Dardennes treat it all the same — every moment is an equal part of her, and we’re lucky to bear witness.
:: Metacritic Rating: 91 | Domestic box office: $48 K (as of 12.28, on 2 screens)
:: Opened in very limited release in theaters on December 28; available for pre-sale only on iTunes.
2. We Are the Best!
Here’s some real girl power for you, full of spunk and spit: Three outcast 12-year-old girls in early 1980s Stockholm form a wonderful, horrible punk band at their rec center. Their discovery of lyrics, instruments, boys, and other realities is the greatest celebration in movies this year, in Lukas Moodysson’s ode to life itself, based on his wife Coco’s autobiographical graphic novel. (The NY Times included a 1982 photo of Coco Moodysson in a May article.)
:: Metacritic Rating: 87 | Domestic box office: $181 K
:: Now available on Netflix streaming.
1. Blue Ruin
My favorite film of 2014 is a straight-ahead revenge tale of the highest craft, with director Jeremy Saulnier creating a level of suspense so effective it’s actually frightening. A homeless man (the excellent Macon Blair) avenges his parents’ deaths by going after the guy convicted of murdering them – and sets off a series of increasingly terrifying events. Saulnier’s classic cat-and-mouse game lives up to its obvious movie influences — The Coen Brothers, Sam Peckinpah, Carl Franklin’s One False Move — with another masterful portrayal of shocking violence in the heart of Americana, with nowhere to go and no end in sight. (End note: I highly recommend this Moviemaker interview with Jeremy Saulnier, who goes into detail about how the financial and operational difficulties he had making Blue Ruin… only to enjoy the spoils of an acceptance to the Cannes Film Festival.)
:: Metacritic Rating: 77 | Domestic box office: $258 K
:: Now available on Netflix streaming.
Other excellent selections: The Immigrant, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Whiplash, Begin Again, Chef, The Overnighters