My friend Mark Harris wrote one of the more compelling and convincing impending-death-of-cinema essays recently; it was published on Grantland. A necessary response to the never-satisfied "there aren't really THAT many comic book movies" claque, it outlines a studio-movie future of Nothing But Franchises. As Charles Scorsese said in Goodfellas, and I'm paraphrasing here, there's nothing nobody can do about it, at least given conditions as they stand. But who can really say? After all, nobody predicted this whole The Interview mess, which could be what they call a game-changer in all sorts of unusual ways, most of them likely very unpleasant. On the other hand, large-scale acts of bad faith on the part of multinationals could lead to a useful paradigm shift relative to the production and distribution of creative work. But don't let me get on a tangent here. Mark's dire forecast put me in a don't-know-what-you've-got-'til-it's-gone mood, and informed my decision to Go Big with my best films of the year list. So, yes: Forty. And a few honorable mentions too. Pretty much in order of preference, although I do not guarantee the ability to put forward too many close-reading-distinctions past the thirtieth film, honestly.
1) Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2) Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann)
More than a coda to Shoah, a whole other movement, or maybe something like Beethoven's Grosse Fugue, a monumental work that just didn't/doesn't fit comfortably into a particular scheme, Claude Lanzmann's work on Benjamin Murmelstein is indignant, magesterial, ironic (in the high literary sense), fueled unabashedly by the force and indignation of Lanzmann's own personality and grief. Utterly amazing.
3) Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Discussed here and here. I don't think this movie exists to offer a referendum on whether it's central character is either a "monster" (no, really, someone called him that; kid makes it to age eighteen in the movie, either smokes a little pot or takes mushrooms, I'm not sure, and he's a "monster;" they're gonna ship him to Nuremberg because he was snippy with his former girlfriend about prom I guess) or "the best little boy in the world" (apparently because he doesn't behave like the lead in Kissing On The Mouth) but rather to offer up glimpses of The Marvellous In The Everyday. But that's just me I guess.
4) The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
5) Goodbye To Language (Jean-Luc Godard)
As much toilet non-humor as there is to be found in average Hollywood product, not to mention 3D: Godard's clearly been accepting notes! Ha ha not really. This Late Work is as staggering as everyone has said, while also being a not atypical Late Work. Godard is among other things a master of juxtaposition and his use of 3D animates his layerings in a remarkable way.
6) Selma (Ava DuVernay)
A film that manages to be "crowd-pleasing" without being in the least bit patronizing. In treatment of its subject matter it takes lessons from both Spike Lee's Malcolm X and Steven Soderbergh's Che, but DuVernay retains her own compassionate voice throughout. She's not afraid of close examination of character, or of embracing contradictions. Spectacular work.
7) Birdman (Alejandro G. Iñarritu)
8) Maps To The Stars (David Cronenberg)
I was torn about putting this on the list not because I don't love it but because it's not likely to be widely seen at ALL this year on account of all sorts of is-it-really-getting-a-release-or-is-this-a-qualifying-run-for-Julianne-Moore's-award-potential-benefit-or-what mishegas. But given the hostility I overheard it greeted with when I saw it at the New York Film Festival, I wanted to start standing up for it now. Dry, brittle, grisly, nasty, and all kinds of fucked up, David Cronenberg's film of a Bruce Wagner script is very much a Cronenberg film in its confrontational particulars and a beautifully controlled and peculiarly jarring experience. The climactic scenes are as messed-up as anything Cronenberg has pulled off since Videodrome, I think, and yes, that IS saying something.
9) The Immigrant (James Gray)
Speaking of beautifully controlled, Gray's orchestration and conducting of this unruly story of love and exploitation is just magnificently judged, and contains one of the great closing shots in this century's cinema, maybe even all of cinema.
10) Under The Skin (Jonathan Grazer)
11) Life Of Riley (Alain Resnais)
12) Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
To quote one of the film's vampire characters, "Well, that was visual." Aural, too. Jarmusch concocting a pair of bloodsuckers to rhapsodize over the objects and object lessons of his (and my) lost youth is a very clever ploy, but the film goes beyond cleverness into poignancy and a kind of twisted hope for the future.
13) Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
Russell Crowe hasn't been so commanding since he portrayed Bud White. And the movie's propulsive dynamics pay off in a number of ways, not least of which is a nifty revisitation to a central theme of Ford's The Searchers.
14) Gone Girl (David Fincher)
Discussed here. I had intended to write more about it, specifically how it's Fincher's most clever and subtle use of his ever-incredible frames-within-frames composition style, but I didn't have time and/or nobody offered me money too. See what you're missing, outlets that pay money?
15) A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
I've admired J.C. Chandor's talent while never quite being as moved by his pictures as they clearly want me to be. But this one got me good. Oscar Isaac's Young Pacino 2.0 performance in the lead helped bring it home.
16) The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)
17) Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
"So I'm to become a nonentity." The most quietly devastating line of dialogue in a movie this year. In the sharpest film about the working life of an artist since Topsy Turvy, in fact.
18) Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Yes, it's a little on the obvious side, and so what.
19) A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
An art film by a young director who's so marketably cool that her work is being featured in outlets that would normally be too fashionably bored to puke at widescreen black-and-white. But the hype is to be believed: the film is droll, angry, funny, beautiful, dreamlike. Jarmusch and Kaurismäki meet Cocteau and share an opium pipe.
20) The Story of My Death (Albert Serra)
Serra's film proceeds from a ridiculous premise—Casanova meets Dracula—and makes it stick, with a plain, "realistic" depiction of 18th-century life and sexuality. It's a film that a viewer may half-sleepwalk through until a particular shock—a hand going through a glass pane, a female orgasm in an age and a social hierarchy that doesn't believe in the female orgasm—jars, galvanizes.
21) National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman)
22) Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang)
Visually ravishing in the worst way, a compassionate view of the dispossessed as they are lost in the hall of disintegrating mirrors that Tsai makes of Taipei.
23) Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
24) A Walk Among The Tombstones (Scott Frank)
25) Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
I'm so sorry that the big bad movie with the insipid dialogue, and the "problematic" structure, and the terrible science hurt you so very very badly, children. Would it make you feel any better if I got you all a copy of Final Draft for Christmas and you could write your own scripts with good dialogue and solid structure and real science and then you'll show that overfed egomaniac hack Christopher Nolan a thing or two? What? You say Final Draft isn't enough, and you need a very very generous deal with Warners as well? I'm sorry but Uncle Glenn can't help you with that. Actually I wasn't gonna buy Final Draft for you either, to be honest.
26) The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
27) La Jalousie (Philippe Garrel)
Ho-hum, another downbeat, fleet, elliptical, confounding, exhilarating movie about unhappy French artistes by Philippe Garrel. I hope he lives and keeps making them forever.
28) Snowpiercer (Bong-Joon Ho)
I think it was when Alison Pill showed up that I finally got that the thing that made this movie special was not its sci-fi visionary ruthlessness but just that it was what you call batshit crazy, and quite gleefully so. I have a script lying around that several industry professionals have expressed admiration for, while also saying it's "unproduceable." Snowpiercer is the kind of movie that makes you think that "unproduceable" is not something Bong-Joon Ho accepts as a reality.
29) Tracks (John Curran)
30) The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson)
People rave about Bill Hader in this, and he's great...and so really is everyone else in the cast, particularly Luke Wilson, whose dry understatement is just remarkable. Unlike a lot of other low-budget character-study type indies ("Sundance movies," in the parlance of some cynics), Johnson's movie also has something resembling an actual narrative, which is helpful.
31)American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
A strong, crisp Clint Eastwood war movie. Nothing wrong with that. Review to come.
32) Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)
Reviewed here. It's not really a "literary" movie, and it really doesn't have a lot to do with Philip Roth. Come on, people. It's pretty funny and ballsy though.
33) Land Ho! (Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens)
34) My Old Lady (Israel Horowitz)
35) Thou Wast Mild And Lovely (Josephine Decker)
I don't want to make this list into some kind of polemic ("Sure ya do, Glenn," says a devil on my shoulder. "OTHER critics do. Just because you tend to make an intemperate ass of yourself when you try for a polemic doesn't mean you'll do it THIS time. You're a different PERSON now..." etc. etc.), but one of several reasons I took a look at this movie was due to the prodding (in writings, not personally) of Richard Brody, who's mad about both this movie and Decker's prior Butter On The Latch. And I think, based on this one, that Decker is a real talent, with a distinctive, unique voice. Her movie, aside from putting forward the important lesson that you should never ever get drunk with farm people, is one of the more intense and frank anatomies of female desire in narrative cinema that I've seen in some time. It's not without miscalculations: the cow POV shots don't quite make it, and male lead Joe Swanberg, whom I've always considered a limited performer, here demonstrates he can't even sink what ought to have been a "I guess God acts crazy" putt. So, for that and for polemical reasons, I'm compelled to say that it's my considered opinion that naming this the second best film of the year, as Richard does, actually does the film and it's director no favors; and to dismiss the likes of Inherent Vice and Mr. Turner as films that "occlude the view toward the year's most accomplished and original work" is less likely to "clear the field," as Richard hopes, than it is to potentially alienate a substantial viewers from the original work this arrogant dismissal purports to support. Although the fact that I took Richard's advice in the first place tends to undercut my argument. Of course I arguably have/had some sort of professional obligation here.
36) Lucy (Luc Besson)
37) Venus In Fur (Roman Polanski)
I saw the theater version by David Ives and was impressed by its technical construction even as I was less impressed by its predictable reversals of gender roles and so on. I also considered Nina Arianda irreplaceable. Polanski's movie, even as it retains much of the original text (albeit translated into French and stuff) is more a transformation than an adaptation, and the sight of Mathieu Amalric as the spitting image of Simone Choule is...unusual. Also Emmanuelle Seigner's finest performance.
38) Locke (Edward Knight)
Reviewed here. Talky! With good acting!
39) The Trip To Italy (Michael Winterbottom)
Reviewed here. Funny!
40) The Last Sentence (Jan Troell)
Reviewed here. Anti-Nazi activities in Sweden is admittedly a special topic for contemporary international film audiences, but Jan Troell makes it work, as he will.
Honorable mentions: Calvary (McDonagh), The Guardians Of The Galaxy (Gunn), The Pleasures of Being Out Of Step (Lewis), Obvious Child (Robespierre), Wetlands (Wnendt), Goodbye To All That (Maclachlan), Don Hemingway (Shepard), Ernest and Celestine (Aubier, Patar, Renner).