Our favorite movies of 2014 | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

Our favorite movies of 2014 

The best films of the year, according to J.R. Jones and Ben Sachs

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Year In Review

Many of the movies that ranked among my favorites this year were things that, for one practical reason or another, I didn’t get a chance to review at length when they came out. I’ve rectified that with new pieces you can access below, along with my ten runners-up and a year-end list from Ben Sachs. J.R. Jones

Film editor J.R. Jones


1 Ida In this black-and-white spiritual drama from Pawel Pawlikowski, a young novitiate, given up for adoption as a child and raised in a Polish convent, meets her aunt, a bitter communist apparatchik, and learns that her parents both perished during the Nazi occupation. Together they set off for the little village of Piaski to find the parents' graves and determine how they met their fate. As the women arrive at the truth and try to reckon with it, Ida becomes a classic struggle between reason and faith, the carnal and the spiritual, hatred and forgiveness. Read the long review >>


2 Calvary In this eloquent black comedy from John Michael McDonagh, an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) is marked for death by an anonymous man who was serially raped by his pastor as a young boy; as the priest counts down the days to his murder, his conflicts with his parishioners deepen into a colloquy on the nature of sin. The premise of an innocent man taking other people's sins upon himself turns Calvary into a passion play even as it places the movie squarely in the 21st century; the cross shouldered by the priest consists, in no small part, of all the ecclesiastical crimes now tumbling out of the closet. Read the long review >>


3 Norte, the End of History Directed by Lav Diaz, this harrowing Filipino take on Crime and Punishment runs for 250 minutes, but it never feels slow, mainly because its story—about a brilliant but jaded law-school dropout who murders a vile moneylender, and the innocent man who pays for the crime—is inherently suspenseful. Time works here as a vise, closing relentlessly on the characters as the wronged man reaches a state of moral purity and the killer gradually goes mad from remorse. Read the long review >>


4 Two Days, One Night In this drama by Belgian social realists Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, a young wife, mother, and factory worker (Marion Cotillard) learns that her coworkers have voted 14-2 to lay her off rather than forfeit their annual bonus of a thousand euros. After one of her friends prevails on their supervisor to schedule another vote, the heroine spends a long, tense weekend tracking down her coworkers one by one and asking them to reconsider. The Dardennes have always been preoccupied with predatory capitalism, and this movie is no different, exposing the endless uphill battle of getting workers to look out for each other rather than themselves. Read the long review >>


5 Night Moves Green turns noir in this suspenseful drama, about three eco-terrorists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) who blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon and then, as the pressure mounts, turn on each other. This may seem like an odd project for Kelly Reichardt, director of such quiet, bucolic indies as Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), but her assured naturalism dovetails beautifully with the unfolding crime story. Despite the unhurried pace, this is more suspenseful than any Hollywood release I saw this year (including Gone Girl). Read the long review >>


6 Last Days in Vietnam In this engrossing documentary by Rory Kennedy, the fall of Saigon becomes a microcosm for the whole agonizing history of the war, a conflict that couldn't be won but an international commitment that couldn't be abandoned. As the Vietcong pour into the city in April 1975, American diplomats and soldiers struggle to save as many South Vietnamese loyalists as possible from brainwashing, torture, and death at the hands of the enemy. "The burning question was, who goes and who gets left behind," remembers an army captain interviewed in the film, which becomes a countdown of days, hours, and finally minutes. Read the long review >>


7 Joe Adapted from a novel by Dan Brown, the poet laureate of the Mississippi backwoods, this indie drama gives Nicolas Cage one of his best roles ever as the title character, a solitary badass whose kind mentoring of an impoverished teenage boy is hindered by his own violent rage. "Keep it real with Joe," one of the day laborers on Joe's little forestry crew tells the boy when he hires on. "Don't never look down at the ground, look him in the face. He likes to see a man's eyes. One-on-one." Directed by David Gordon Green (George Washington), the movie dwells heavily on the challenge of being a man—of being both tough and good. Read the long review >>


8 The Kill Team Screened as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, this documentary provides an inside look at the U.S. soldiers who targeted Afghan civilians for murder so they could notch their rifles. Filmmaker Dan Krauss scored interviews with three of the soldiers charged, and their frank testimony provides a chilling picture of how the war in Afghanistan turned into a senseless quagmire. Our deification of the American soldier may say less about those soldiers' sacrifice than about our own guilt over sending them off to war and forgetting about them; pressing this point, The Kill Team asks whether a soldier's greatest sacrifice for his country might not be his own humanity. Read the long review >>


9 Everyday I thought I'd never hear the end of Richard Linklater's Boyhood, filmed periodically over 12 years to capture a boy's maturation from first grade to college, yet this heart-rending drama by Michael Winterbottom accomplishes much the same thing with its story of an English family struggling to stay together as the father serves out a five-year prison term. Like Linklater, Winterbottom shot his movie periodically in real time, capturing the growth of the children, yet in contrast to Boyhood, which wound up being mostly about its own process, Everyday is a sharply focused story about the preciousness of each moment. Read the long review >>


10 Cheap Thrills This cagey black comedy by E. L. Katz harks back to the 70s heyday of the midnight movie, when fly-by-night geniuses like George A. Romero and John Waters combined trashy pleasures with genuinely subversive intent. Two old pals, down on their luck and drowning their sorrows at a tavern, cross paths with a wealthy couple who offer them cash prizes to execute a series of increasingly lewd, gross, and dangerous stunts. This may be pitched as a comedy, but it's really a lesson in raw capitalism, with the couple as the new oligarchs who run this country and the two friends as the rest of us unlucky bastards. Read the long review >>


11. Foxcatcher
12. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (Them)
13. A Girl at My Door
14. CitizenFour
15. Nymphomaniac
16. Snowpiercer
17. The Overnighters
18. In Secret
19. Gloria
20. Tim’s Vermeer

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