There are great years in film, good years in film and not-so-good years in film. Time will tell where 2014 will fall on that spectrum, but one thing is undeniable—it was the most historic year in film we’ve had in a long, long time. Much of the evidence to back up that claim can be found in two of our favorite movies of the year—our Film Woman of the Year directed the first studio picture ever about Martin Luther King Jr. (and will almost certainly become the first African-American woman director nominated for an Oscar), and our Movie of the Year arrived when one of our greatest masters finished a thirteen-year process and showed us his masterpiece. Those two, and 48 more of our favorites, make up the list that follows. Enjoy!
50. Dear White People
While Dear White People anchors its perspective in the struggles of its black leads, it argues that racism is a universal issue—or that, at least, dealing with the implications of racism, rooting it out at its source, is a personal task for every single human being to undertake. Who hasn’t, at one point or another, felt like they didn’t fit in with their peers? Who doesn’t feel the tug of social pressure when they’re in school? These aren’t questions about racism, but they do inch us collectively closer to targeting the very deep-seated core of what it is that still makes racism so prevalent today. Simien stumbles in the third act thanks to an amalgam of plot complications (a stroke of simplicity could have smoothed over Dear White People’s landing), but maybe a diluted ending would have glossed over the truth at the film’s core: that race politics are more complex than pretty much any one of us realizes. —Andy Crump
49. Happy Christmas
Intimate is an overused word when it comes to describing films, yet no word better suits Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas. Shot on film and mostly improvised, the short (82 minutes) movie is more a family portrait than a feature film, and it’s as cozy, destructive and loving as a Christmas Eve Reveillon. Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Joe Swanberg) are happily married. The former stays at home with their two-year-old son while attempting to work on her second novel. Everything seems status quo until Jeff’s sister Jenny (wonderfully and frustratingly portrayed by Anna Kendrick) takes residence in their basement as she tries to figure out her own life. Fresh off a breakup and looking for a new start, Jenny’s still in arrested development. On her first night in the otherwise peaceful house, she blacks-and-passes out at a friend’s party. Her influence on the household is disruptive, sometimes for the better (reminding Kelly why she liked to write in the first place) and negative (endangering basically everyone in the house with some ill-timed late night cooking). Most of the film is shot in the house, which has the warm glow of the holidays seeping through every hallway and tiki bar lining it. Always understated but dripping with the reality of helping family members—and the difficulty of loving certain ones—Happy Christmas doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like a photo album. —Travis Andrews
48. The One I Love
The dark insecurities that reside inside even the happiest of marriages—issues of trust and fading passion—are given playful yet thoughtful treatment in The One I Love, a comedy-drama in which a couple learns more about each other than maybe they should. Strong performances from Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are the highlight of a movie that may make married people nod in recognition but also shudder a little, too. Charlie McDowell (author of Dear Girls Above Me) and screenwriter Justin Lader have managed to upend a few romantic-drama clichés to find new ways to express how none of us really knows our spouse—or ourselves, for that matter. —Tim Grierson
Few documentaries have cameras rolling as history is being made. But director Laura Poitras found herself in the middle of momentous times while making Citizenfour, which takes us behind the scenes as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden works with (among others) journalist Glenn Greenwald to expose the organization’s systematic surveillance of everyday Americans. From the worried initial meetings in a Hong Kong hotel room to the later fallout across the globe, Citizenfour has the rush of a thriller, humanizing its subjects so that we see the uncertainty and anxiety coursing through them, along with the guts and indignation. _—T.G.
46. Finding Vivian Maier
When Vivian Maier died at the age of 83 in the spring of 2009, those who had known the woman remembered her as a nanny with a humorously stiff gait and a penchant for taking photographs. In the short time since Maier’s death, her narrative has been radically rewritten, her striking street photography celebrated in exhibitions from Los Angeles to London. That such a private, peculiar woman could retroactively be recognized as one of the best photographers of the last 50 years is a testament to the untold great art being made under our collective nose. It’s an enticing story, and it’s breezily told in Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary that examines her path to the posthumous spotlight. —T.G.
45. Blue Ruin
Occasionally, the national news will carry stories about a horrific local murder that took place in some part of the country where we don’t live. And because it happened somewhere else, possibly far away from any major cities, maybe we make assumptions about the sorts of people who live there—negative assumptions. We stop seeing these individuals as being like us—instead, we view them as some kind of weird “other.” And so we turn off our empathy and count our blessings that we don’t live wherever “there” is. What’s so striking about Blue Ruin is how writer-director Jeremy Saulnier both plays into those dismissive assumptions while also subverting them. His dark revenge tale flaunts its small-town strangeness, but it also keeps a sharp eye on the human beings at the story’s center. Blue Ruin may occasionally be midnight-movie lurid, but not at the expense of deeper questions about vengeance’s diminishing returns. —T.G.
44. Guardians of the Galaxy
Director (and co-writer) James Gunn has taken the somewhat obscure team (obscure to non-comic book fans, at least) and kept the source material’s tone, attitude and bombastic settings intact. As the self-named Star-Lord, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) presents viewers with a pretty irresistible amalgam of Han Solo, Mal Reynolds and Captain Kirk. (Pratt owns this role.) The scene-stealing duo of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) also provides the latest reminder of how convincing mo-cap-aided CGI has become. (Within moments after being introduced to them, I was yearning for a Rocket and Groot buddy picture.) Frankly, it’s hard to compete with Quill, Rocket and Groot, but Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) don’t need to shine as brightly—unlike The Avengers, one doesn’t get the sense each team member’s time center stage is being meticulously measured. Marvel’s rambunctious entry into the space opera genre—and the cornerstone of its “Cosmic Marvel” roster of characters and storylines—so perfectly embodies what the preceding months of hype and hope foretold that even its weak points (and it has its share) feel almost like unavoidable imperfections—broken eggs for a pretty satisfying omelet. —Michael Burgin
It’s easy to celebrate musical genius after the fact, overlooking the endless early years of struggle, self-doubt and maniacal dedication that went into making artistry that seems effortless. Happily, that’s not the case with Whiplash, which thoughtfully considers talent’s emotional and physical toll, and for most of its running time this character drama remains ambivalent about the sacrifices needed for greatness. If a young hopeful ends up to be Charlie Parker, then the pain was worth it. But what happens if he doesn’t? —T.G.
42. The Babadook
The Babadook presents us with a barren world. Nary a soul wanders through the frame without Kent’s explicit permission, all the better to emphasize Amelia’s increasing isolation. Kent takes no false steps, and her sense of self-possession is refreshing. There isn’t a single detail displayed here that isn’t essential to the story. We are very much involved with Amelia’s ordeal, and as things go from bad to worse to petrifying, the visuals envelope us in their impeccable simplicity. The film’s spartan approach to world-building works beautifully, buttressed by a depth of catharsis more than the volume of its frights. Make no mistake, The Babadook is utterly terrifying, but it’s also intimate, touching and, above all else, heartfelt. Call it horror, call it melodrama, call it what you like—this is a great film. —A.C.
41. Top Five
The chief thing to know about the film is that it’s hilarious, as a comedy made by Rock should be. Almost as important is that it’s heartfelt. Rock uses the opportunity to reflect on his own personal and professional travails; he leans on his biting wit, offering few pleasantries in Allen’s quest for respectability. Top Five has tender times, but the film’s sentiment usually gives way to rawer moments involving, among other things, Brown’s relationship with her boyfriend (Anders Holm), Allen’s misgivings about getting hitched, the family he left behind for Hollywood and, yes, those rare occasions that unintentionally mimic the current events on our televisions today. —A.C.