Under the Radar’s Top 20 Films of 2014

Dec 30, 2014
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This passing year yielded ridiculous riches in genre filmmaking, with half of Under the Radar’s favorite films falling into science fiction, horror, or another recognizable cinematic niche. Mix in a number of highly ambitious auteur projects and close-up character portraits and you have Under the Radar’s Top 20 Films of 2014.

The below list was calculated from personal top film ballots submitted by Under the Radar’s film staff. The titles with the most frequent—and highest-placed—appearances on those ballots were tallied and ranked as our Top Films of the year. Scroll down to see our picks and read our reasoning behind them. 

1

Blue Ruin

Dir. Jeremy Saulnier

In the intense, unflinching Blue Ruin, a homeless vagrant returns to his hometown when he learns the man convicted of killing his parents will be released from prison. He wants revenge for the event which ruined his life, and plans to kill his enemy, despite being under-equipped to do so in every possible way. The fallout of his actions – and mistakes – propel the narrative, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat through every minute of Blue Ruin’s short but riveting runtime. By taking the tried-and-true formula of a revenge film and making a simple substitution – replacing the typical brawny, badass lead with a meek, fumbling everyman – director Jeremy Saulnier and longtime collaborator/star Macon Blair have made their indie thriller into the most gripping film of 2014. By Austin Trunick

2

Boyhood

Dir. Richard Linklater

For all the (deserved) fanfare surrounding its production, Boyhood is a simple story that observes the impressionable years of a boy's path to adulthood. Friends, houses, and stepfathers will all change. So does the technology, music, and fashion around him. The lone constant in his life is that he is constantly misunderstood. Of course, he's in no position to fully understand the world around him and can only look on with wide eyes while trying to figure out where he belongs. Richard Linklater's uncanny knack for specificity finds the little important moments that make up not just a boyhood but the evolution of an entire family. The result is a nostalgic slice of Americana with a firm pulse on the changing winds, and a film that manages to be so much more than what it's title suggests. By Shawn Hazelett

3

Only Lovers Left Alive

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

If you were immortal, what would you do in your spare time? Who could you relate to? For vampires named Adam and Eve, eternity entails sitting around while musing about the art of yesteryear, occasionally drinking their fix of O-negative blood. A dilapidated Detroit is a perfect tableau for Jim Jarmush's unexpected foray into vampire movies. The indie maestro's witty approach and a gorgeous cinematography help to leave an indelible mark on the genre, as well as pitch-perfect performances by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. By Shawn Hazelett

4

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Dir. Wes Anderson

The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of those rare comedies that summons the same gleefulness as a Looney Tunes episode, yet never let the audience forget the brutality that is on the verge of overtaking the film’s 1930s Central Europe. Wes Anderson utilizes a brilliant color palette and a cast brimming with talent to deliver the a theme of ‘nostalgia’: reminiscence of goods and services no longer available, grand and vibrant art and architecture that will lose its gleam, and a celebration of grace, wit, and romance that will soon count for little in the face of barbarism. Equal parts jubilant and melancholy, Budapest is enjoyable from beginning to end. By Jennifer Chang

5

Snowpiercer

Dir. Bong Joon-ho

Hammering ripped-from-the-headlines class warfare into a blunt, relentless sci-fi adventure, Bong Joon-ho’s English language debut Snowpiercer is a brutal story of haves versus have-nots in a frozen, over-the-top apocalyptic setting. Featuring a talented international cast and a beautifully designed world, Snowpiercer is one of the years most propulsive action films. By Stephen Danay

6

The Guest

Dir. Adam Wingard

Adam Wingard’s lean, mean genre pastiche about a soft-spoken solider who ingratiates himself into the family of a fallen comrade is Terminator by way of Halloween-era John Carpenter. Equal parts hilarious, gruesome and thrilling, The Guest features a pitch perfect central performance by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as the icily charming title character and one of the most twisting “did-that-just-happen?” plots of 2014. By Stephen Danay

7

Whiplash

Dir. Damien Chazelle

It’s been referred to several times as “Full Metal Jazzy”, used to describe the ferocity of the teacher/pupil relationship in the film between the sycophantically driven jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) and the equally passionate and violent instructor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). But while the mental and verbal sparring between the two is certainly one heck of a show, it’s the instruments that are the star. Cut like a showcase reel of a jazzy music video, each piece of brass, woodwind, and percussion gets its time to shine, allowing the film to balance this discourse on teaching methods, masculinity, and how music is a language all its own. By Kyle Turner

8

Nightcrawler

Dir. Dan Gilroy

As writer and director, Gilroy contemporizes the L.A. noir tradition and turns the idealized pursuit of the American dream on its head to raise questions about the state of our media culture, our fascination with technology, and how these factors reinforce divisions of race and class within the economic climate. When we first meet Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom, he appears to be an ingenious and amusingly eccentric hustler out to make a buck. But Lou becomes increasingly menacing after acclimating himself with the freelance business of selling on-site video footage to TV news stations—the more sensational and morbid, the better the payoff. Gilroy paints L.A. as it’s rarely seen on film, visiting both inner-city neighborhoods and outskirt locales, while exposing its industrial infrastructure with street wires and cables prominent in various frames. Not to dismiss Gyllenhaal, who gives a chilling performance playing against type, but the revelation of the film is Riz Ahmed as Lou’s desperate and apprehensive accomplice. By Chris Tinkham

9

Birdman

Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Kinetic camera work and a great screenplay elevate a simple story about a has-been movie star striving for artistic integrity by writing, directing, and staring in a Broadway play. The casting is star-studded and shrewd, allowing the two actors most in need of a rebound -- Michael Keaton and Edward Norton -- to steal the show. By Shawn Hazelett

10

Ida

Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski

Set in the 1960s Polish Peoples Republic, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is gorgeously rendered in stark black and white, which serves to illustrate the dichotomy at the heart of the alcoholic, fatally conflicted judge Wanda Cruz, played masterfully by Agata Kuleza. Cruz takes in her niece Anna, an aspiring nun harboring commensurate cognitive dissonance, played with impetuous élan by Agata Trzebuchowska. A Byzantine web of secrets and lies unfurls, and the film’s rife with enough spring-coiled tension to cut with a knife, glacially building to a denouement more gripping than any seen on film in 2014. But that doesn’t strip away any of the tender pathos that thankfully never veers into cheap sentimentality. Pawlikowski walks an emotional tightrope, and could’ve fallen on his face, but his crashing ambitions instead coalesced into one of the year’s most visceral, affecting films. By John Everhart

11

The Babadook

Dir. Jennifer Kent

Though first time helmer Jennifer Kent certainly culls from the likes of Lynch and Polanski, The Babadook is truly something original and unique and wholly its own. But it’s successful not from the fact that it’s able to remix the Lynchian soundscape with the kind of Freudian psychology both Lynch and Polanski are known for in their horror, but for its ability to make its content and execution emotionally potent. For, The Babadook, an examination of a mother and son relationship, or an examination of depression, or an examination on the pressures of motherhood, is as heartbreaking and raw as it is absolutely terrifying. By Kyle Turner

12

Nymphomaniac

Dir. Lars von Trier

That master troll has made his magnum opus with the five and a half hour sexual odyssey Nymphomaniac (trust me, folks, it’s one film, not two). Nymphomaniac, while incredibly self-reflexive and incredibly different from his earlier work (it’s a work of “digression”, so to speak), seems to feel slightly more like his collaborations with Nicole Kidman (Dogville), Bjork (Dancer in the Dark), and Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves), not because it (again) features a female lead, but because there’s a palpable sense that said female lead fought back. Unlike von Trier’s previous two films, there’s this tone of anarchy that comes not only from the director but from his star. There’s a duality in the authorship here, which is important given that the film explores the complexities of female sexuality. It takes a man and woman to explore and examine everything, especially in such a masterful way like Nymphomaniac. By Kyle Turner

13

Listen Up Philip

Dir. Alex Ross Perry

Philip is a deplorably self-absorbed asshole, but played in an irresistibly nasty fashion by Jason Schwartzman, we can’t help but be sucked in hopes of seeing holes get shot through the character’s hilariously inflated ego. While awaiting the publication of his second novel following a modestly successful debut, Philip flees the creatively suffocating New York City and his patient, live-in girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) to stay in to the country home of his literary idol (Jonathan Pryce). With its neurotic lead, New York setting and soothing jazz soundtrack, Listen Up Philip feels like a Woody Allen classic, but is far more in touch with the modern world than anything Allen’s made in 20 years. By Austin Trunick

14

Under the Skin

Dir. Jonathan Glazer

One of the rare films that caters to neither the easily bored or the faint of heart, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is an art house horror film featuring a terrifying score, the wintery industrial landscape of Glasgow and performances so naturalistic you’d rightly guess some of the actors didn’t know they were being filmed. The center of this slow burn storm is Scarlett Johansson as an unnamed, unknowable interloper into the human experience, preying on our weakness even as she succumbs to it herself. By Stephen Danay

15

Edge of Tomorrow: Live Die Repeat

Dir. Doug Liman

You’d think it would be near-impossible to mis-market a big-budget, Tom Cruise-starring sci-fi blockbuster, but that’s the age we’re living in. Released theatrically under the generic, meaningless title Edge of Tomorrow and surrounded by an ad campaign that gave no indication of its humorous bent, the film belly-flopped in theaters. Edge of Tomorrow has a fantastic high concept: Cage (Cruise) is a soldier with no combat experience who’s thrust onto the front line of an unwinnable battle against alien invaders; at the moment of his death, he becomes caught in a Groundhog Day-like time loop that resets to the morning of the battle each time he dies. With the help of Emily Blunt’s Sgt. Rita – the only person to have also experienced what Cage is going through – he uses his strange gift to turn the tide of the war. With cool battle sequences, a badass performance by Emily Blunt, and a deceptively funny script, Edge of Tomorrow is finally getting its due as a rental, and being recognized as the clever, science fiction/action film that it is. By Austin Trunick

16

A Most Wanted Man

Dir. Anton Corbijn

One of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final films—and his last movie not part of The Hunger Games series—A Most Wanted Man is proof positive the actor was at the peak of his career at the time of his untimely death in early 2014. Set in the world of modern terrorism, the film starts Hoffman as Günther Bachmann, a German intelligence officer trying to deduce the intentions of an illegal Chechen immigrant. Hoffman’s stellar performance is bolstered by a strong supporting cast, including Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Grigoriy Dobrygin. Based on John leCarré’s novel, with a screenplay by Andrew Bovell and directed by Anton Corbijn, A Most Wanted Man is a fast paced, adrenaline pumping, modern espionage thriller. By Zach Hollwedel

17

Citizenfour

Dir. Laura Poitra

On the one hand, Laura Poitra’s Citizenfour is a nice primer on an incredibly complex subject, even an urgent one. But on the other, its urgency lies in how outstanding a documentary it is: chronicling the dissemination of the whistleblowing of the NSA, this is a documentary about data on top of data on top of data, and what to do with it. The audience is given an unprecedented look at how this information was released, as we sit in the hotel room with Poitra’s, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, planning and narrativising this information. It’s tense like a thriller and as engrossing a documentary as one could hope. And it’s urgent. It begs that we pay attention to how much of our lives are on the internet and why. Citizenfour narrativizes the narration of our lives when they’re being watched. By Kyle Turner

18

We Are The Best!

Dir. Lukas Moodyson

Lukas Moodyson’s warm and inviting film We Are the Best! takes the cake as the most beguiling film of the year. Watch as three young girls form a punk band that isn’t particularly good. But watch as the two become closer and closer, and form a special and lasting bond between them. Charming and sweet, with incredible lucidity and loveliness from its three leads (Mira Barkhammar as Bobo, Mira Grosin as Klara, and Liv LeMoyne as Hedvig), We Are the Best! Captures the complexity and nuance of young friendship. Three girls against the world. By Kyle Turner

19

It Felt Like Love

Dir. Eliza Hittman

With her first feature film, writer/director Hittman casts an empathetic light on the transition between childhood and adolescence, examining the pangs of emergent libido, the sometimes foolish consequences of teenage boredom, and the risks that come with discovering independence and identity. In a tonally perfect performance, lead actress Gina Piersanti expertly navigates us through these conflicts as Lila, an introverted, observant 14-year-old girl whose book smarts fail her when she’s amongst her more streetwise cohorts, translating instead to transparent awkwardness and vulnerability. Set against the backdrop of a humid New York City summer, Hittman’s textured, quietly sensual film vacillates from sadly endearing to downright frightening. By Chris Tinkham

20

The Lego Movie

Dirs. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Clever, biting, and insanely fun, one of the smartest dystopian films in years also happens to be the years' best kids movie. With evil President Business planning to end the world, ordinary, yellow-faced Emmet happens upon a lost artifact that results in him being mistook for a prophet meant to save the world from such a tyrant. A warm-hearted theme gives The Lego Movie a surprising amount of emotional reach, while memorable peripheral characters and in-jokes make it worth multiple viewings. By Shawn Hazelett

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Joshua
December 30th 2014
3:24pm

Blue Ruin at number one? Bold move, but I love it. That movie was great.

Michael
January 3rd 2015
8:36pm

Big YES to #1. An absolutely fantastic thriller, underrated and underseen unfortunately. It is so damn good.

Adam
January 7th 2015
12:06am

Blue Ruin was one of my favorites too. I also really enjoyed Enemy.

JP
January 5th 2016
5:58pm

Wait, this is a print publication? I thought it was a blog & was going to give its bad writing a pass, but come on.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of those rare comedies that summons the same gleefulness as a Looney Tunes episode ...”

That should read SUMMON, not “summons”—the subject of the relative clause is “comedies,” not “one.”

And does the guy who wrote about Listen Up Philip really not understand that it’s about Philip Roth? If he does, why didn’t he mention this absolutely crucial fact?