“Ida” is a stark and hypnotic black-and-white road movie set in a frostbit Polish winter in the early 1960s, where a young, orphaned novitiate is sent on a short pilgrimage to meet her only living relative prior to taking her vows to become a nun. Every frame looks like a painting or photograph, but most would belong in a modern art museum, with framing choices that are daring as they are unconventional. Director Pawel Pawlikowski shoots this adventurous spiritual journey like he really is reinventing the wheel.
9. Night Moves
Another brooding, slow-burning masterpiece from indie auteur Kelly Reichardt, this drama cast Jesse Eisenberg against type as a sullen environmental activist whose latest act of eco-terrorism inadvertently takes a human life—and whose shockwaves cause a rift with his colleague that results in escalating tragedy. Guilt, fear and moral confusion swirl into a dark parable that’s as old as Poe and as cinematically gripping as Hitchcock, and it boasts the best final shot of any movie last year.
Disparage this cultural-cinematic Event Film all you like; while you’re poking for holes in the dense metaphysics of “Interstellar,” you’re missing one of the year’s most ravishing and mind-blowing experiences, a herculean accomplishment in super-screen cinema and a necessary preserver of celluloid projection. For all its bowel-shaking special effects, “Interstellar” is primarily a heady meditation on such mystical concepts as love, nature, space and time—touching our hearts and souls as well as our brains.
7. Love is Strange
Movies this torn from the amusing, sensitive, imbalanced, sometimes unjust fabric of life are rare, and “Love is Strange” should be cherished as a quiet masterpiece. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have flawless chemistry as a longtime couple forced to forego their apartment and live in separate dwellings after their marriage prompts a job loss for Molina. There isn’t a single emotional misstep in this film, nary a studio concession in sight. In showing how one cowardly turn of events can uproot a once-stable family unit, Sachs and his co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias draw beautifully from life’s uncomfortable surprises, turning the specific into the universal and the familiar into the revelatory.
I tend to gravitate toward films that push the boundaries of form, that open new doorways of imagination. The sleight-of-hand wizardry of “Birdman,” which seems to play out as one astonishing, unbroken take, certainly qualifies. Unpredictable every step of the way, right up until its boldly ambiguous final shot, “Birdman” is both mystical and grounded, technically acrobatic yet fully invested in the earthbound struggles, heartbreak and minutiae of putting on a play. The movie is a repository of show business fears, anxieties, insecurities, hubris and delusions, all of which feed into one thing: the universal — but especially American — quest to matter.
5. Winter Sleep
The latest from Turkey’s art-house darling Nuri Bilge Ceylan is ostensibly a hulking, patience-testing film, at an unrelentingly talky three hours and 16 minutes. But you’ll be so enraptured by the conversation that this intimate epic will soar by, leaving you wanting more. A stone thrown from a child strikes a car in Turkey’s rural steppes, setting in motion a tumultuous few days in the life of a condescending newspaper columnist/hotelier. Whatever bonds he had left with his sister and younger wife either calcify or wither across a series of grievance-airing conversations that people often have in real life, but rarely engage in movies. Touching on philosophy, capitalism, class and ethics, “Winter Sleep” transcends entertainment: it teaches us about life while holding a mirror to the ugly parts of our own. (NOTE: “Winter Sleep” opens Jan. 9 in South Florida, including Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton.)
4. Like Father, Like Son
It looks like this Japanese drama by the great Hirokazu Kore-eda is set to be remade in Hollywood. Ho-hum. I beg of you to see this version first (or instead). It’s another beautiful, Ozu-channeling study of the powerful bonds of family from the greatest humanist filmmaker of our time, a movie of cascading emotions about two sets of parents who are informed that their children were accidentally switched at birth and should be returned to their proper parents. This revelation tears family units asunder, subtly comments on the class structure in modern Japan, and explains both everything and nothing about why we love who we love.
Sheer exhilaration. This movie feels like living inside a frenetic avant-jazz composition: Boundaries are pushed and dangerously exceeded, emotions roil, and the camera slices and dices through any and all inhibitions, creating a symphony of blood, sweat and cymbals. “Whiplash” makes us feel alive, but, through a fierce, career-best performance by J.K. Simmons as a sociopathic conservatory teacher who pushes a young drummer beyond his breaking point, it also forces us to question the root causes of creative genius—to decide first if there is a method to the teacher’s madness, and second if the method is worth the sacrifice.
2. Under the Skin
Films this certifiably strange don’t come around very often, and when they do, they are rarely directed with such unforgettably creepy poise, such otherworldly visual imagination, and such a masterful grip on the uneasy confluence of documentary and fiction. The movie feels like it was transmitted from another planet, an appropriate ambiance for a film about an alien unable to phone home, adrift in nocturnal Scotland, and wearing the agreeable skin of Scarlett Johansson. Men are seduced and consumed until the ET strays from her protocol—leading to a vision of otherness in the modern world that is etched permanently into my sense memory.
An obvious choice, perhaps, as Richard Linklater can do no wrong in my eyes—but a landmark film that deserves the Best Picture Oscar it might very well receive. Filmed in annual segments over 12 years, this emotional and physical maturation of a child from approximately age 7 to 19 is the ultimate coming-of-age narrative in any media, making all others seem fundamentally incomplete. “Boyhood” is filled with the magic of the immediate moment, the majesty of the everyday. You’ll be astonished at the consistency of character as the director and most of the actors, dividing their time between other projects over a dozen years, become themselves so fully, as if no time passed at all. Indeed, “Boyhood” is largely about the ephemerality of time itself, its endless forward motion. And like many of the best films in movie history, “Boyhood” is also about film itself—about celluloid as a preserver of the past and a harbinger of the future.
Honorable mentions: “1,000 Times Good Night,” “Happy Christmas,” “The Homesman,” “Lucy,” “Nightcrawler”
Worst of the year:
10. Nymphomaniac Vol. II (simply because of the last 30 seconds)
9. The One I Love (for blowing such a brilliant premise)
7. The Equalizer
7. Gone Girl
5. Men, Women & Children
4. Bad Words
3. Better Living Through Chemistry
2. And So it Goes
1. Gimme Shelter