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Every year is a good year for movies. Remember that. It’s easy to become disheartened by news of weekly flops (both at home and abroad) and distracted by leaked email chains in which Hollywood icons squabble over their failures and come to the conclusion that 2014. well, sucked. I’ve even been guilty of restraining my enthusiasm over the past twelve months, holding back on ‘five-star’ designations in anticipation of impending masterpieces, only to be largely disappointed by the marquee Academy Award contenders rolled out at year’s end. I’ll say it: my bad.

Once I cast my memory back over the year that was, it became apparent how richly rewarded we’d truly been. 2014 saw audacious experiments (Boyhood, Birdman, Mommy), oddball parables (Kumiko, Whiplash, Nightcrawler) and ingenious blockbusters (The Lego Movie, 22 Jump Street) from all corners of the globe. Some sat on the fringe (Nymphomaniac) while some stealthily snuck into multiplexes between Marvel sequels (Edge of Tomorrow). Each of them made 2014 a little bit better. And that is how we should measure a year in movies: by the number of releases that artfully inspired us, amused us, thrilled us, and profoundly perplexed us. Find 35 examples below.

Honourable Mentions:

22 Jump Street, 20,000 Days on Earth, Bad Neighbours,  Boyhood, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, The Lego Movie, Mr. Turner, Nightcrawler, Nymphomaniac, Predestination, The Raid 2: Berandal, The Skeleton Twins, Whiplash.

Also…

Birdman, The Imitation Game, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, Life Itself, Mommy, Selma.

These don’t arrive in Australian cinemas until 2015, but due to film festival premieres and press screenings, they were an integral part of my personal film-watching experience in 2014. I do what I like in these lists!

Apologies to…

Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, In a World.

These are the stragglers from 2013 that I didn’t get to catch up with until January of this year. If I’d seen it in time, Her would have sat atop my 2013 Top 10.

Without further ado…

10. Obvious Child

ObviousChild

Rom-coms were dead and we were doing just fine without them. Then comedian Jenny Slate and debut director Gillian Robespierre came to apply the defibrillator with Obvious Child, a heart-revitalising tale of two people falling in love that doesn’t adorably climax with a kiss but an abortion (somehow, still adorably). A modern, human comedy that smuggles a significant political message, Obvious Child is, above all, a coronation of a brilliant new leading lady. Should Jenny Slate want to keep making rom-coms, I’d happily see them.

9. Edge of Tomorrow

EdgeofTomorrow

Doug Liman’s giddy sci-fi thriller about a not-so-super soldier who keeps on dying in combat, only to be mysteriously rebooted, proves how swiftly action heroes would expire if they attempted all that crazy s*** in real life. (Yes, “real life” in this instance involves an alien invasion.) This is how I’ve been pushing it to uninterested friends and family: If you’re a Tom Cruise fan – like myself – get ready for a comedic, self-deprecating turn by the screen legend. And if you’re a hater, well, you get to see Cruise decimated several hundred times. Win-win.

8. Two Days, One Night

TwoDaysOneNight

Unspeakable cruelty instigates the drama in Two Days, One Night, about a despairing woman (Marion Cotillard) forced by a callous boss to beg her colleagues to turn down their bonuses so she may keep her job. And yet, there’s much compassion to be found: from the co-workers who surrender the extra cash, despite sorely needing it, and then also from Cotillard’s understanding heroine, towards those who just can’t part with the money. The exploration of humanity’s highs and lows isn’t foreign to Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. However, in Two Days, One Night – assisted, for the first time, by a bona-fide movie star – they perfected it.

7. Calvary

Calvary

The opening of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary sounds like the set-up to a hackneyed joke: kindly Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is told during confession he’s to be murdered next Sunday. The problem: there is no shortage of suspects in his small, newly-atheistic Irish town. Some laughs come over the next 100 minutes – we’d expect nothing less from one of the spunky McDonagh boys – but Calvary is primarily a morbid meditation on blame and our perpetual quest for penance. As the picture nears its shocking conclusion, McDonagh’s deeply cutting missive to the Catholic Church arrives. Good luck forgetting Calvary any time soon.

6. Frank

Frank

I watched the weird, warmly funny Frank three times in quick succession and my love for it did not diminish in the process. Admittedly, it had me before the opening credits even rolled, boasting a script from brilliant journalist and author Jon Ronson, marking director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to the excellent What Richard Did, and promising a particularly playful performance from Michael Fassbender as the eponymous rock star with a predilection for wearing papier-mâché heads. What touched me most about Frank and caused me to keep hitting rewind was its sensitive portrayal of mental illness, and the (pardon the pun) frank assessment of how it’s both eased and exacerbated in the pursuit of creative perfection. The music in it is pretty fantastic too.

5. Gone Girl

GoneGirl

In its first half, Gone Girl is exactly the kind of polished thriller you’d wish from David Fincher, not worsened– believe it or not – by Ben Affleck’s presence (it helps that he’s playing a blandly handsome dude seemingly hiding something deep and dark, as in real life). Slick and snappy, it’d earn a place in this top ten just for being ably made. Then, in its second half (thanks to a fearless Rosamund Pike), Gone Girl devolves into the devilish black comedy and striking marital satire fans of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel already knew the yarn to be. And that’s how it graduated to my top five.

4. Lucy

Lucy

There was no way to predict Luc Besson would ever make another good flick, let alone a first great one, yet here we find ourselves. The ads for Lucy earned eye rolls with its dunderheaded premise, suggesting humankind was only utilising ten per cent of our brain capacity and could tap into the rest if only we, like our heroine (played by Scarlett Johansson), ingested a mind-expanding superdrug. In execution though, the film proved to be freakishly perceptive and thoughtful, far exceeding our expectations of how this story would unfold. Essentially about a woman’s evolution into a god, Lucy asked big questions – especially in regards to which human traits we could afford to shed – and still managed to be a rollicking time at the cinema.

3. Under the Skin

UndertheSkin

Scarlett Johansson did precisely one better than Lucy in 2014, disrobing in Jonathan Glazer’s disorienting and disturbing Under the Skin. As an alien on a mission to collect mankind’s fleshy outer layers, Johansson’s unnamed anti-hero drives around Scotland, seduces real passers-by (neither she nor Glazer will reveal which ones were actors), invites them back to her apartment, and then unpeels her clothing as they follow her into a terrifying black void. Mica Levi’s hypnotic, snake-charming soundtrack – the year’s finest – scores each deadly seduction. That synopsis makes Under the Skin sound more conventional than it actually is; rather, this is irrefutably the year’s most curious concoction. You may love it. You may hate it. Just don’t not see it. There’ll never be another like it.

2. The Babadook

Babadook

The best Australian feature in years – perhaps of this entire young century – quickly came and went in local theatres, eventually finding love in the United States. Now, your natural instinct at this stage in The Babadook’s short-to-tall poppy cycle is to reject it, a’la Iggy Azalea or Rebel Wilson. Fight that urge. Jennifer Kent’s astounding directorial debut lives up to the hype, and Essie Davis – as the infanticidal single mother battling a terror of a son (Noah Wiseman) and the terror of an evil picture book come to life – delivers 2014’s top performance. Scary as hell and monumentally affecting, The Babadook is without equal.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

GrandBudapest

Wes Anderson imagines an alternate history in his devious masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which the not-quite-Nazis take over not-quite-Europe. The entire ordeal is remembered, hazily, by an old man, and relayed to us, the audience, by an author who was told the tale decades earlier. No wonder the universe in this babushka doll of a story seems half-invented. The one element recalled with precise clarity is Ralph Fiennes’ hilariously prickly concierge M. Gustave, an infinitely compelling invention who continually, magically draws our eye away from Wes Anderson’s intricately manicured sets. An endlessly amusing and deeply sad anecdote about the relief provided by our memories (especially when the good ol’ days are long gone), The Grand Budapest Hotel enraptured me at the beginning of the year and kept me spellbound well into December. Photos fade. Dreams dissipate like fog. Recollections grow unreliable. Wes Anderson, however, just keeps getting better.