Here are movie moments from 2014 I'll never forget: Gugu Mbatha-Raw's sad pop tart smacking her ass in Beyond the Lights, the sickroom choked with flowers in Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo, Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst's Greek island all-nighter in The Two Faces of January and the entire soundtrack of Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo's Begin Again, which I've hummed every week since. But hard choices must be made. The movies that made it through to my annual top 10 represent a full range of what the cinema can offer — and as such, I'm presenting them as awards.
1. Best Picture: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson shifts his attention from modern, manicured ennui to pre–World War II Europe, and his frivolity finally finds a purpose. This is an achingly lovely portrait of a European resort — and, larger, a civilized society — with only months left to live, not that Ralph Fiennes' master concierge and his dedicated lobby boy know it. We do, and that foreboding is like X-ray glasses through which every perfect prop looks perilously fragile. At last, Anderson has convinced us that whimsy is worth fighting for.
2. Best Thriller: Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds to play ruthless crime-scene photographer Lou Bloom, the first on the scene when things get bloody. He looks hungry enough to feast on human flesh — and in a way he does, filming freshly killed corpses with no regard for anything but his own wallet. Yet director Dan Gilroy and his real-life wife, Rene Russo — here in a key role as a TV news producer — remind us that we gawkers at home are the real consumers of carrion.
3. Best Indie: Frank
In his best role in years, Michael Fassbender refuses to show his face. As Frank, the inscrutable lead singer of art-core band Soronprfbs, he's a masked musical god. Frustrated keyboardist Domhnall Gleeson joins the group and can't decide what's more intimidating: Frank's beach ball–sized disguise or his talent. What separates the greats from the merely good-enough? Director Lenny Abrahamson never finds out, but his film about genius and jealousy is itself a masterpiece.
4. Best Comedy: Neighbors
Hollywood is full of funny women. The problem is that too few scripts get green-lit that give them anything to do. Nicholas Stoller's family-versus-frat comedy could have earned good grades just from Seth Rogen and Zac Efron's brawls. (Efron might be the most hilarious pretty boy since Rob Lowe.) But Rose Byrne elevates Neighbors to the head of the class. Not only does her wannabe “cool mom” help drive the action, she steals the whole movie with a saucy kiss.
5. Best Foreign-Language Film: Nothing Bad Can Happen
A saint squares off against a sinner in this beautiful and brutal German drama by first-time director Katrin Gebbe. The innocent is a homeless Christian teenager who moshes at punk-rock churches; the devil is the charismatic family man who adopts him and then cruelly tests his faith: mocking his God, punching him in the nose and then much, much worse. Yet Gebbe's polarizing film understands that both are drawn to the abuse — you can't be a holy martyr unless you suffer.
6. Best Biopic: Get On Up
James Brown was a self-made superstar, a poor boy from South Carolina who thrilled the world and gave it the finger. Angry, egotistical, controlling and brilliant beyond belief, Brown's whole career was a construct. He gave audiences his all but with a subliminal rebuke: I did all this; what's your excuse? Chadwick Boseman is unbelievable in this biopic-in–air quotes, ruled, as Brown was, by emotion over facts. In one fight scene, young Brown draws strength by hallucinating music he wouldn't write for another 20 years. He hears his own trumpets, powers up and wins the brawl.
7. Best Buddy Flick: We Are the Best!
In 1982 Stockholm, three 13-year-old girls form a punk band. They only have one song, the anti-gym-class anthem “Hate the Sport.” But their drummer Bobo is a music encyclopedia, guitarist Hedvig is better than the older boys who condescendingly offer to teach her chords, and bassist Klara has more swagger than the Sex Pistols. Who cares if the blond preps at school dismiss them as social misfits? All that matters are mohawks and BFFs.
8. Best Blockbuster: Edge of Tomorrow
Death becomes Tom Cruise. Christopher McQuarrie's breakneck sci-fi scrambler kills him off a hundred times, only to be resurrected, gulping and traumatized, and forced to die again. Cruise makes us laugh at death — in early scenes, he keeps accidentally offing himself with the chagrin of Wile E. Coyote. Yet the film makes us salute his sacrifice. In a year where PG-13 heroes offed a thousand bad guys without blinking, Edge of Tomorrow's empathy and ingenuity made it a popcorn flick with soul.
9. Best Debut: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
No need to make room for writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour. She's paving her own path, beginning with this moody, black-and-white vampire romance starring a blood-sucking skater grrrl wearing sneaks and a chador. Shot entirely in Farsi and set in a fictionalized Iran that looks like the suburban nightmares of David Lynch, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a bold and peerless debut from a young filmmaker poised to start her own cult.
10. Best Cartoon: The Congress
Rounding out the year's best is a cerebral satire about the Hollywood of tomorrow. Robin Wright plays herself as an aging actress who submits to a studio scan of her body to create a pliant, pixelated version of Robin Wright that will act in whatever schlock it wants. Then director Ari Folman leaps forward two decades to a future film industry where everyone is a cartoon star — even the fans. Avatars of Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean jostle for space in an absurdist landscape that looks like the head trips of Hieronymus Bosch. It's a gorgeous nightmare. But as long as movies as strong as this year's best keep getting made, we can forestall it.
Amy Nicholson on Twitter:
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter: