Fuse Feature: The Best and Worst Films of the Year

Our demanding critics choose the best (and worst) films of the year.

By Arts Fuse Staff

Arts Fuse film critics serve up their best-of-the-year picks in film. But, given the independence of mind of our thoughtful reviewers, don’t expect any predictable agreement on the selections. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a hit for one critic and a downer for another. Birdman soars for one and plummets for another.

Bill Marx
The Arts Fuse

A scene from "Leviathan"

A scene from Andrey Zvyaginistev’s nervy satire of Russian corruption, “Leviathan.”

Best Narrative Film:

Leviathan: Andrey Zvyaginistev’s gutsy indictment of everyday life in Putin’s Russia, where gangsters and the Russian Orthodox Church have aligned with the country’s hard-nosed leadership.

The rest of the ten best:

Two Days, One Night (Belgium)
The Skeleton Twins
Zero Motivation (Israel)
Mommy (Canada-Quebec)
Ida (Poland)

And these admirable runners-up:

Turner (England)
Still Alice
Snowpiercer (South Korea)
Inherent Vice
The Blue Room (France)
Force Majeur (Norway)
Winter Sleep (Turkey)
Lucy (France)
Stranger By the Lake (France)
The Trip to Italy (British)

Best documentary: The Overnighters

The rest of the ten best:

Lost in the Bewilderness
Citizen Four
The Case Against the 8
Life Itself
Art and Craft
The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden
Finding Vivian Maier
If You Build It

Most grossly overrated film: Birdman

Also overrated: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Rosewater

The biggest sexual turnoffs:
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and Vol.2
Venus in Fur

The most repugnant xenophobic politics:

The Last Days of Vietnam
American Sniper

— Gerald Peary

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess

A scene from "Boyhood."

A scene from “Boyhood.”

5) The Grand Budapest Hotel: Another wonderfully whimsical film with a dark underbelly from Wes Anderson. With sparkling performances by an excellent cast including F Murray Abraham and Ralph Fiennes. The one drawback — it peters out at the end.

4) Calvary: This Irish drama, starring Brendan Gleeson, poses deeply disturbing questions concerning crimes and oddly determined retribution.

3) Gone Girl: Much has been written about this thriller..suffice to say that Ben Affleck appears to be on a roll

2) Love is Strange: Both John Lithgow and Alfred Molina give the strongest performances of their careers in this heartfelt tale of the trials and tribulations of a aging gay couple who have trouble dealing with life after they tie the knot.

1) Boyhood: Director Richard Linklater’s ode to adolescence is a dynamo! No teenager should miss this film. How brave of the filmmaker to take years on the movie as he waited for the child actors to grow!

Best Documentary:

Botso: Several films in one: a history lesson about the Republic of Georgia in the first half of the 20th Century, an inspiring narrative about bringing the gift of music to young children in California, and a celebration of the power of love.

(Runner-up) The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne
The story of Doris Payne, an African-American octogenarian con artist who, though indifferent to the rescue efforts of whose who care for her, still solicits enormous sympathy from the viewer.

Best Foreign Films:

Bad Hair
A dark, documentary style portrait of poverty and family conflict in an unforgiving Caracas, Venezuela. Strikingly excellent performances from inexperienced actors.

Force Majeure
A darkly comic piece about family dynamics under pressure.

Worst of 2014:

A Master Builder
How could such a great cast take Ibsen’s classic and screw it up so badly?

(Runner up) The Theory of Everything
The production was striving for “it made me weak and weepy!” but wound up with “is it over yet?”

— Paul Dervis

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

These are in alphabetical order. The films that I chose this year each had a hypnotic and cumulative effect. They stuck with me long after I left the theater. With that criteria, I had to omit some films that I really enjoyed: David Gordon Green’s little-seen Joe, the comedies Obvious Child, Chef, and Grand Budapest Hotel, Bong Joon Ho’s epic Snowpiercer, the creepy Australian thriller Babadook, the biopics The Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, Unbroken, Big Eyes, and Foxcatcher,the foreign films The Blue Room and The Lunchbox. I missed several significant films, most notably Selma, Cake, Actress, and National Gallery. I have indulged in a separate list of excellent 2014 documentaries.

A scene from  Mike Leigh's "Mr Turner"

A scene from Mike Leigh’s “Mr Turner”

Best Narrative Features:

Boyhood – Richard Linklater’s masterful 10-year production tells the story of one boy’s coming of age. It is most likely the best of his films that will walk a thin line between real life and reel life. The director understands that it is the moments between the more traditionally dramatic events that really shape a life.

Birdman – Melodramatic, operatic, and over the top in style and substance, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s fantasy is a fever dream of broken and struggling egos where no one is spared.

Calvary – Anchored by Brendan Gleason’s solid performance this beautiful but extremely dark comedy directed by John Michael McDonagh (brother of Martin) illustrates Beckett’s tragicomic lines to perfection: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” It’s sad, hysterical, thoughtful and mesmerizing.

Force Majeure – I loved every shot of this quiet comedy that means to épater la bourgeoisie and does so methodical impetuousness after a landslide turns a family’s carefree vacation in a wrenching, soul-searching weekend.

Ida – A throwback to great art films where everything is clean and deliberate, the dialogue is minimal and you are swept up by the film’s power and its exploration of unanswerable questions on faith and existence.

Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy’s wonderful script has a Cheshire Cat performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom “a member of that self-destructive breed: hard to forgive, difficult to understand, but definitely one of us.”

Mr. Turner – Mike Leigh’s story of J.M.W. Turner’s later years is masterful blend of lush dialogue, jaw-dropping cinematography, and a great Timothy Spall performance that both attracts and repels. And it proffers some well-researched history to boot.

Only Lovers Left Alive – Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film is slow and patient; his “dry wit and elegant formal presentation” imagines contemporary vampires as hipsters and it’s a perfect fit. It seems autobiographical to whatever extent that might be possible given the plot.

Two Days, One Night – The Dardenne Brothers’ customary minimalism is made brilliant use of by the gifted Marion Cotillard, who plays Sandra, a mother suffering from depression. The character needs to convince 14 of her 16 colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her position at the factory. Inspired by that simple premise the film examines the underbelly of modern capitalism, communal responsibility, and personal responsibility.

Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer’s audacious experiment in fantasy puts an emotionless Scarlett Johansson into a blend of real and enacted drama that “draws us deeper into a heightened way of seeing.” The drama accumulates slowly and the film’s imagery is unforgettable.

The Documentary List:

1. Keep On Keepin’ On
2. Citizen One
3. Jodorowsky’s Dune
4. Life Itself
5. Alive Inside
6. Art and Craft
7. The Overnighters
8. The Case Against 8
9. Tim’s Vermeer
10. Manakamana

— Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

Ten Best of 2014

American Sniper:

Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” — Deconstructs America’s gung ho spirit.

1. Manakamana
Harvard’s SEL follows up Leviathan with this profoundly simple series of life encounters on the endless circle to the title temple.

2. Under the Skin
Terror, pathos, alien predation and the creeping contagion of humanity

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
It’s a pity that Wes Anderson didn’t design the world.

4. American Sniper
Eastwood’s deconstruction of the gung ho spirit that leads to dehumanization and tragic waste has sadly aroused the same tone-deaf, kneejerk ideological rejection that greeted Zero Dark Thirty.

5. Boyhood
I had my doubts about the kid and the movie around age 13, but that is to be expected. Wondering if maybe Linklater might have focused on the sister and called it Girlhood – a more interesting character.

6. Only Lovers Left Alive
And if Wes Anderson couldn’t design the world, maybe Jim Jarmusch would.

7. Norte, or the End of History
The evil that is so grotesquely full blown in The Art of Killing first breathes in Lav Diaz’s Nietzschean parable of fascinating fascism.

8 Winter Sleep
Çeylan combines a little Bergman and Cassavetes with his sui generis aesthetic in this seductive, black comic, existential bender.

9. The Overnighters
This year’s Marwencol, Jesse Moss’s documentary sums up nearly every major issue facing America today in the secret anguish of one man.

10. National Gallery
With subtlety, with Olympian acuity, one brilliant film at a time, Frederick Wiseman documents the institutions that shape our lives.

Films deserving inclusion but for which I can’t come up with a glib catch phrase off the top of my head: Force Majeure, The Immigrant, Closed Curtain, Tracks, Obvious Child, Rocks in My Pocket, The Missing Picture, Rich Hill, 20,000 Days on Earth, Art and Craft

Films I haven’t seen yet likely to have changed my mind about the above list: Selma, Goodbye to Language, Leviathan, Gone Girl

This year’s Blue is the Warmest Color awards for most overrated films:

"The Lego Movie" -- proves there are worst things than product placement.

“The Lego Movie” — Proves there are worst things than product placement.

1. Citizenfour
I don’t want to make it about me, he says. Oh really? I lost count of the first person pronouns. Sorry, but Edward Snowden is just a more camera friendly Julian Assange.

2. Birdman
Misogyny, self-loathing, gimmick confused as style – what more could a critic want?

3. Whiplash
Stunning as a short, this one note exercise in sado-masochism loses all narrative credibility at feature length. Better drumming than in Birdman, though.

4. Locke
It had me until dad showed up in the back seat. May have been better if Tom Hardy wore the mask from The Dark Knight Rises. A Human Voice it’s not.

5. The Lego Movie
Do you really have to beat us over the head with the family values/it’s okay to be different mantras in the last third? It’s worse than product placement.

— Peter Keough

Peter Keough, currently a contributor to The Boston Globe, had been the film editor of The Boston Phoenix from 1989 until its demise in March. He edited Kathryn Bigelow Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2013) and is now editing a book on children and movies for Candlewick Press.


  1. Shelley on December 18, 2014 at 10:34 am

    I can’t decide whether to see Inherent Vice. Despite all his faults, I know Pynchon is a magnificent talent: but that talent is in the language, isn’t it? I’m afraid the movie is just going to be another overheated noir with mumbled dialogue.

    • Peter Keough on January 16, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      It’s in my list of films that I didn’t include because I couldn’t come up with a catchy phrase. I agree — it’s a great movie, much better than the overrated Wild.

  2. helen epstein on December 18, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Where’s Tracks, an unusually beautiful and absorbing Australian film with Mia Wasikowska?

    • Gerald Peary on December 19, 2014 at 11:31 am

      Definitely see it, and on the big screen. I would rate the cinematography as a hundred times more interesting than that of the showy, pretentious Birdman. Paul Thomas Anderson is, as always, admirably ambitious, even if Inherent Vice loses its way a bit in its second half. What is it most like? Robert Altman’s classic, The Long Goodbye.

    • Gerald Peary on December 19, 2014 at 11:35 am

      I missed Tracks when it came out, and eagerly awaited a critic’s screener at the end of the year. Alas, that was not to happen. Tracks was released by the Weinstein Company; and the notorious Harvey Weinstein must have decided arbitrarily that Tracks would not win any awards, which is all he cares about. So why bother sending out a DVD?

      I didn’t vote for Tracks because I wasn’t offered a chance to see it by its distributor.

    • tim jackson on December 23, 2014 at 9:21 am

      I also missed Tracks, but was impressed by Reese Witherspoon’s trek into the wild in Wild. I agree with Dr. Peary on Inherent Vice. All I could think of was a psychedelic Long Goodbye. I feel like it needs the book as a companion piece. I’ll read it and watch it again. As for the Birdman stuck in firmly in Gerald’s craw – it is a farce and it aims for grand theatricality and wildly achieves both.

    • Peter Keough on January 16, 2015 at 7:04 pm

      Hi Helen,
      I left my reply in the wrong place. See above. Sorry!

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