Most Overappreciated “Feminist” Film: Under the Skin
What makes a film feminist? You can start by having a woman or group of women make the movie. You don’t have to address the sex lives of women, but if you do, they don’t have to be slut-shamed. You can pass the Bechdel Test (though Under the Skin doesn’t) and portray the lives of women as they are actually experienced. A sci-fi or fantasy film that suspends or hyperbolizes certain aspects of reality can play around even more. In Under the Skin, we get an alien wearing a woman-suit, but she (it?) is not necessarily concerned with being a “woman” at all. Though she understands the seductive powers of feminine wiles, it’s all a ruse, a means to a different, gooier end than her male victims imagine. This premise, which the first half of the film sets up, brims with feminist potential, as many critics have noted. But when this unfeeling alien encounters a man with a face disfigured by neurofibromatosis, instead of ingesting him like anyone else, she spares (i.e. friend-zones) him. Moreover his “specialness” triggers her curiosity about, and sympathy for, being human. Of course the exceptional treatment of disabled characters is nothing new in film and television, but this is more than a regrettably clunky episode. Because feminism is not about “women” so much as it is about toppling patriarchy, a system that says that some bodies matter more than others, whatever feminist statement this film is trying to make is almost entirely undone by this hackneyed trope. Disability is not incidental or adjacent to feminism, but wholly shares in its anti-patriarchal critique. Under the Skin punts on this very issue. Unlike, say, the dwarf-tossing incident in The Wolf of Wall Street, where the depraved treatment of the disabled illustrates Jordan Belfort’s inhuman callousness, Under the Skin comes off as sanctimonious and inconsistent (and still sexist). Though it shows how bad it is to be a woman in this world—constantly subjected to the predatory behavior of men, threatened with rape, etc.—it wrongly exempts the disfigured man from this misery. Instead of sharing in the lot of the disadvantaged, or even the privilege of men, it treats him, like so many movies, as someone outside the system, no more than a magical talisman. —Genevieve Yue

Most Mindlessly Monolithic: Under the Skin
Under the Skin is perfect, in its way: it nails that brand of cool distance familiar from certain strands of art-world installation work, Björk music videos, Lexus commercials, and…almost any other arty indie sci-fi film. Indeed, its icy perfection becomes all terribly expected after a point, and going back over the film, looking at its shooting strategies, it feels less a work of rigor than one of remove. Even so, its fans generally came off like a pack of forty-niners in their rush to be the first to label it “Kubrickian.” It’s clear that Jonathan Glazer, who last gave us the risible Birth, has seen A Clockwork Orange (dig that near-future retro-present shtick!), The Shining (marvel at those geometrically precise compositions and sickening string glissandos!), and, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey (visual abstractions and cosmic ambiguity!). But one wonders if he’s really taken in Barry Lyndon (for wryly undercutting its lush romanticism), Full Metal Jacket (for conveying righteous anger in the face of senseless, real-life horror), Eyes Wide Shut (for its clear-eyed yet oddly romantic examination of the marital institution), or hell, even Dr. Strangelove (for its bawdy hilarity). The insurmountable gap between Glazer and Kubrick seems plain: both have formidable command over the stuff cinema is made of, but Kubrick was able to consistently marshal that talent into expressive works that speak beyond themselves, to the world at large. Under the Skin is airless, worked over within an inch of its life, and might well look better in a gallery than a movie theater. What exactly are we to take away from it? That humanity is special and rare and to be cherished? That alienation is the modern condition and the lot of everyone, even space vixens? One wonders, if you removed the aesthetic bells and whistles, what’s left under Under the Skin. —Jeff Reichert

*****

The “She Wuz Robbed” Award for 2014: Joanna Hogg
One British filmmaker had three films released in the U.S. in 2014, none of which troubled the selectors of the Reverse Shot Top Ten (nor indeed the Film Comment Top 50, which managed to make room for Gone Girl and A Most Violent Year). They weren’t made in 2014: her latest sui generis marvel, Exhibition, was 2013 and the other two—2007’s Unrelated and 2010’s Archipelago—were rushed out alongside it, as part of a job lot. North American cinephiles have been quick to embrace the appeal of a Ben Wheatley, a Pawel Pawlikowski, or a Peter Strickland—so what is blocking the markedly superior Joanna Hogg from their cinematic consciousness? Is it just the erratic nature of film distribution, or is something else being lost in translation? We may know of her, but there is a mystery, as well as a certain irony in Hogg’s inability to make a stronger connection than that. These films—of which the family drama Archipelago is arguably the high point so far, but all three should be seen without delay—are exquisite, meticulous studies in reticence. Though they’re outwardly Rohmer-esque (Unrelated’s story of a woman’s isolation on a Tuscan holiday is certainly evocative of Le rayon vert), the untouchable Englishness of it all makes that relationship a distant one.

Hogg’s cinema describes a very real and potent malaise in unflinching close-up: the collapse of meaningful human interaction. Her characters are for the most part muted and hesitant, enveloped in a shroud of emotional dyslexia, but none of them feel unreal and, with the exception of the artist couple in Exhibition, none of them feel like characters who should be in a film. They don’t tick any screenwriter’s boxes, they haven’t been finessed or work-shopped (à la Mike Leigh), they aren’t “salt of the earth” types for whom we should intrinsically feel sorrow or sympathy. They’re upper-middle-class people who want to be left alone, and the world of film would normally oblige. This borderline anti-cinematic approach to character actually delivers uniquely thrilling, breathing cinema. The holidaymakers in Unrelated will find any possible means not to communicate properly (they play games, tell anecdotes, or stick awkwardly to the superficial), so, for the most part, when words are spoken, precious little is said. The audience gleans so much from what is unvoiced that when a genuine emotional connection is made it is all the more powerful and cathartic. In both Unrelated and Archipelago,a main character takes a phone call and stays silent while the person on the end of the line speaks: Hogg’s static camera, unyielding and pitiless, captures every agonizing second; we hear nothing for what seems like an eternity, leaving us an abundance of time to imagine and feel the despair of both participants. Instead of music on the soundtrack, there’s an immersive, humming ambient sound (wind, crickets, birds, traffic). This immaculately balanced effect, along with the quotidian texture of cinematographer Ed Rutherford’s sparse, cerulean visuals, gives these movies an almost overwhelming tangibility. In a Joanna Hogg film, the silence is unbearable and beautiful at once. America should stop hesitating. —Julien Allen

Worst Scene in a Good Movie: Boyhood
I loved Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, for reasons I outlined in a brief write-up for the RS annual Top 10. That said, it’s an imperfect work. Much of whatever opprobrium has been directed toward it has, not outrageously, focused on its representational approach. One recurring allegation, more or less boiled down: with its pretentions-to-universality title and monocultural core cast, Boyhood posits the white, middle-class experience as default. And it’s certainly true that some critics have fallen into a trap by lauding this representationally limited film for its portrayal of the quintessentially “American” experience, consequently—without pre-planned malice—abetting the replication of patterns of cultural dominance all too familiar to those of us (like me, a critic of color in a white-dominated field) who fall outside the previously described demographic.

I’m a firm believer in critiquing a film for what it does include rather than what it doesn’t, so with that in mind . . . In all of Boyhood’s 165 minutes, there are, I think, four noteworthy speaking roles for actors of color: less controversially, an awkward college roommate, and a young schoolboy who gets teased by his older friends. And there’s mom Olivia’s black female colleague, who in a brief, very curious moment, appears to make sexual advances toward a freshly graduated Mason Jr. (Perhaps it’s the result of a bad edit—there’s no laugh to release the tension—but the scene carries a weird charge, unwittingly reviving the old jezebel stereotype of the sexually ravenous black woman.) And then there’s inarguably Boyhood’s nadir, the use of the character of the family’s Hispanic one-time handyman (Roland Ruiz). He first appears in a scene in which Olivia slightly patronizingly praises his skills, calls him “smart,” and recommends he take night classes. Then, in a forehead-slappingly silly moment near the film’s conclusion, he reappears at a restaurant where Olivia is dining with her now grown kids. He’s managing the restaurant and, rather than let the audience process his presence independently, Linklater has the man gushingly thank Olivia, this shining beacon of white womanhood, for changing his life.The smug, clunky sequence not only ruptures Boyhood’s refreshing absence of diegetic self-referentiality—rarely does Linklater feel the need to have the film comment on itself to foster continuity—it also plays like it was directed by a drunken Cameron Crowe in ultra-sentimental mode.

In the grand scheme of Boyhood—a generous, expansive, and ultimately loveable work—it’s a minor thing, but it did raise my hackles. Linklater had an opportunity to afford a young Hispanic actor a role with agency, but disappointingly opted instead to utilize him as a symbol genuflecting toward that time-honored trope: the white savior. —Ashley Clark

Scariest Movie: Closed Curtain
When Iranian movie genius Jafar Panahi was under house arrest and wasn’t allowed to make a film, cinephiles rallied. His superb, deceptively formless This Is Not a Film, codirected by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (later imprisoned as well), was smuggled into Cannes in 2011 on a USB drive hidden in a cake; months later it turned up on hundreds of critics’ best-of-the-year list. The Iranian government has since banned Panahi from making films for twenty years. Judging by his follow-up, Closed Curtain, codirected with Kambuzia Partovi, he cannot be stopped. This time, however, no one seemed to care much. Yet the film is as miraculous as its predecessor, and just as urgent and shapeshifting. Yet it’s also a more somber, terse, mysterious affair. It’s a bizarre tale of a writer and his dog, both in hiding at an austere seaside house—it’s unclear why the writer is on the run, though it’s implied that he’s a political dissident of some sort; meanwhile his sweet canine friend has to be smuggled in, as it’s later revealed on a television broadcast that the government is rounding up and killing dogs. Disrupting their pitch-dark solitude (the windows are all covered, in curtains and dark paper), a woman, also on the run from the law, shows up at the front door late at night with her brother. Panahi’s distanced camera and patient aesthetic serve to underline the essential horror of the set-up; unexpectedly Panahi has made a very scary movie, and the fear is both highly constructed and pit-of-your-stomach primal. From here, the film will zigzag from the petrifying to the playful, turning on a dime from creepy, character-driven drama to subtle meta-theatrics featuring Panahi himself—yet the entire enterprise functions coherently as a film about emotional and creative limbo. Panahi has again proven that a great artist can make even confinement seem expansive. —Michael Koresky

Best Use of Archival Footage: 20,000 Days on Earth
Except for a blink-and-miss-it, stroboscopic opening credit montage, 20,000 Days on Earth visualizes the life and work of Nick Cave without employing archival footage. This is done not because such footage was hard to come by—after all, Cave has been on stage and in the public eye for over 35 years. Instead, visual artists Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth wanted their debut film to remain in the present tense, in a fictionalized 20,000th day on earth, and to stay within a moment that’s rarely captured in the life of a rock n’ roller—middle age. So, as Pollard told me last year, the directors had a rule that everything from the past had to exist inside the present-tense world they created, whether it be via conversational recollections, therapeutic conjurings, staged visitations from Cave associates past, or, most cannily, slide projections against a wall, with Cave commenting on and physically approaching blown-up, imperfectly articulated photographs. Then, with just a few minutes remaining in the film, with Cave on stage performing the song “Jubilee Street,” archival clips start flashing and intermingling with the present. Flickerings of Cave’s former selves haunt the moment, mimicking and matching stage movements that have barely changed over time—a kick, a lurching with the microphone, a look over to sideman Warrens Ellis, where former Bad Seed collaborator Blixa Bargeld once stood—all while revealing a face that has indeed changed over time, and all while Cave sings the eerily apt lyrics “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, look at me now.” The deployment arrives like punches to a speed bag; the effect is overwhelmingly, disarmingly emotional; and the implications are as manifold as a final gesture should be. “The past has this almost paranormal ability to leak through the present, and to effect, change, and influence it,” Pollard said. They were interested in following “that thread of how fragile a present moment is. That it’s always layered up with the memories of the people watching it and acting it, and the possibility that maybe past and present could be melted or ruptured in some fashion.” —Eric Hynes

Golden Flash Award: Test and Whiplash (tie)
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash got a lot of talk for its visual approximation of what it feels like for its young music student to push himself to physical and emotional extremes for the sake of art. And editor Tom Cross deserves a lot of the credit for making the film so persuasively visceral; regardless of how one takes its central sadomasochistic relationship between tyrant teacher and supplicant pupil (it’s even been called homophobic!), one cannot deny the elegance and audacity of the filmmaking itself. Another brilliantly constructed film about male performers pushed to their limits is Chris Mason Johnson’s Test, which focuses on a young modern dancer exploring the limits of his physical being in San Francisco in the mid eighties during the AIDS crisis. Edited by Johnson, Christopher Branca, and Adam Raponi, Test makes vivid the experiences of the dancers on and off the stage, constructing visual poetry out of the beauty and dynamism of their bodies at a historical moment when those bodies were coming not only under attack but also becoming negatively codified. Whiplash (which could have been titled Test) is about suffering and Test is about release, but these purely emotional films are of a piece, united by the fine details of the craftsmanship that make them such forceful, compelling works and functioning as rushes of feeling divorced from standard logic. —MK

Best First Shot: The Immigrant
In a year where it seemed that everybody (Jonathan Glazer, Christopher Nolan, Justin Simien) cribbed their mise-en-scène from Stanley Kubrick, James Gray toasted Francis Ford Coppola: the opening shot of his excellent The Immigrant quotes the beginning of The Godfather Part II, except that instead of shooting the Statue of Liberty head-on and with awe, he films the monument from behind, as if Ellis Island has already turned the huddled masses yearning to breathe free before they’ve even gotten off the boat. To the right of the frame, in the foreground, a man’s head provides scale and a more figurative sense of perspective: he’s awaiting the new arrivals with his own ulterior motives in mind. The simple graphic power of this image is vintage Gray, integrating visual and thematic meaning into a single (and simple) composition. There’s more filmmaking intelligence in this shot than in many of 2014’s other acclaimed offerings put together…

Best Last Shot: The Immigrant
although it’s only the second best shot in the movie. Throughout The Immigrant, Gray doubles Marion Cotillard’s Ewa with Lady Liberty—it’s the role she plays in the burlesque show organized by impresario Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix)—and in the remarkable final sequence, she adopts the same posture as her avatar, her back to the camera as she rows away from New York with her sister in tow. Ewa is framed at a distance, through a window bisected like a cross (which connects to an earlier Church confessional scene). There’s enough dynamism and symbolism for any ending in that composition, except that that’s only half of the story, and half of the shot. Ewa’s retreat occupies screen left; the right side of the shot is preoccupied with Bruno, who takes the spot he occupied in the opening shot, again with his back to the viewer, this time walking away. At this moment, Ewa and Bruno are in different places in both senses of the word—she is leaving the country while Bruno is staying—but Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji use a strategically situated mirror to make it look like they’re heading in the same direction—an eloquent effect that cinches the link between the two characters (the film’s title could refer to either one of them) and serves as an ideal emblem for a director who’s never forced himself (or his audience) to choose between intellect and emotion. —Adam Nayman

Best New York Movie: Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
This shoestring drama, concerning Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), an autistic Latino preteen lost in the bowels of the MTA, is best-known for enacting a clever 11th hour switcheroo—incorporating Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent Rockaway Beach devastation into its narrative—when the storm’s arrival interrupted shooting. But what of the glorious passages of Ricky alone, riding the trains, observing all that he sees around him? An argument between riders, passengers helping a lost out-of-towner find the right connection, buskers, panhandlers, costumed revelers, and so much more. It’s this stuff, some clearly shot on-the-fly, some staged to move the narrative along, that elevates Stand Clear of the Closing Doors from a movie about a lost kid to a paean to a particular place (think of Little Fugitive, and what it did for Coney Island). It made this jaded strap-hanger feel a little more kindly toward those grubby tunnels and shrieking, overcrowded trains—sure, the subway gets us where we need to go (most of the time), but let us never forget all the places it takes us while en route. The film gets bonus points for making the second half of a future double bill with the great Stations of the Elevated. JR

Dumbest “Smart-Dumb” Action Movie: John Wick
Per Michael Nyqvist, recycling his generic Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol Foreign Villain in John Wick, hit man Keanu Reeves’s particular set of skills is being “a man of focus, commitment and sheer will. I once saw him kill three men in a bar with a pencil. With a fucking . . . pencil.” “Sheer will”—dynamite writing, that, and with it, character background is established. All that remained to push this since-retired killing genius back into the life was the murder of his puppy, a gift from his dead wife (iPhone-cameoing Bridget Moynahan): both dog and woman had had an comparable mellowing effect on the assassin that screenwriter Derek Kolstad isn’t bothered to distinguish. But for John Wick’s champions, the terse idiocy is key to its mission of breaking the action-revenge film down to its badass essentials. The directors are stunt coordinators, which means slightly less reliance on CGI and slightly more coherent action (“minimalism,” “clear lines,” and “clean compositions” are some helpful codes you can plug into your praise), which purportedly excuse the rote, bland screenplay that somehow isn’t based on a graphic novel. When Wick unburies his stash of a few rolls of gold coins, I swear we’re supposed to drool, “Wow, that must be like a million billion dollars!”, even though regular money is used elsewhere. A club named after a Jean Pierre-Melville film and two actors from The Wire remind us how many light years we are from a thoughtful treatment of violence. Denuded of anything like politics or humanity, with only a thin soup of sentimentality remaining, John Wick is stripped-down fun only in theory. It’s Unforgiven for assholes. —Justin Stewart

Best Use of Suspense: Manakamana
Will those two women finish their rapidly melting ice cream bars before the gondola ride ends?

Worst Use of Suspense: Neighbors
Have Zac Efron and his frat-head cronies actually planned to murder a baby by putting a modified air bag in its crib?

Worst Delivered Line: Snowpiercer
To be fair, it’s impossible that anyone could have made the line “I know that babies taste best!” function as anything other than camp. But as uttered by a weepy, grizzled Chris Evans in unforgiving close-up, this became the film’s touchstone moment of high hilarity rather than the shocking confessional as intended. One might be surprised to note, from here and throughout the film, that Snowpiercer was written by a native English speaker and not awkwardly translated from Korean. —MK

Most Exciting Breakthrough: Tom Hardy in Locke
In The Trip to Italy, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon get their shots in at The Dark Knight Rises: after reprising their priceless imitations of Michael Caine as Alfred (“I’ve buried fourteen Batmans . . . I’m not going to bury another cloak with pointy ears that people wear at birthday parties”), they turn their attentions to Tom Hardy as Bane. “It’s like they’re competing to see who’s the least understandable,” chides Coogan, who does temper his mockery of the actor’s Vincent-Price-caught-in-an-oscillating-fan cadences with a sincere acknowledgment of fandom: “He’s scarily good.” As it turns out, Coogan is correct about his countryman, and it took another low-budget road movie—a solo venture as opposed to a buddy comedy—to prove it. As a construction foreman trying to do damage control on his personal and professional life over the course of a nighttime drive in the real-time drama Locke, Hardy gives what is easily the performance of his career—his protean talents (including his fetish for difficult accents, this time a Welsh lilt) have finally found their ideal vehicle for expression. Like so many flashy, stage-trained Brits before him, Hardy isn’t wired for self-effacement, and Locke (like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson before it) gives him a showcase: he’s the only person who physically appears onscreen and he’s in virtually every shot. And he rewards his writer-director, Stephen Knight, with acting that is at once in keeping with the stagy nature of the material—monologues and muttering, perfectly pregnant pauses—and so deeply un-gimmicky and unshowy that it elevates it into something like great art. To watch Hardy’s eyes ever-so-briefly betray amusement while upbraiding an inebriated but admirably dutiful subordinate via hands-free telephone is to see a great display of technical skill, but also to feel as if we’ve been given an intimate purview on a real person—somebody who isn’t performing for our benefit, but working through something untenable and intense all on his own. It’s rare that a recognizable star achieves that sort of transparency, and hopefully when we’re looking at Hardy’s career a couple of decades down the line, it’s Bane that will be the footnote to his body of work, rather than Locke. —AN

Best Unexpectedly Dynamic Visual Element: Scrotums in Stranger by the Lake
There they are, at camera-eye level, lolling about, dangling between legs, resting on sand and pebbles, not caring if we sneak a peek. Penises, flaccid or erect, small or Fassbent, have long been the topic of conversation when it comes to the relative paucity of male genitalia on film, but their less aggressive, more dangly neighbors have been just as long hidden in the crevices. Alain Guiraudie’s brilliant Hitchcockian exercise was many things, all of them possible because of its plein air eroticism, in which body parts long unseen on camera become so crucial a part of the mise-en-scène that eventually we forget we’re even looking at them. To politely borrow the title of a much less interesting 2014 film: Free the Scrotum! —MK

*****

Laziest Subtext of the Year
It’s about ‘merica. (Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year, Gone Girl)

Most Durable Subtext of the Year
It’s about time. (Boyhood, Manakamana, Stray Dogs, Interstellar)

Most Endearing Subtext of the Year
It’s about wanting to grow old with the one you love. (Only Lovers Left Alive, Love Is Strange)

Most Cinematic Subtext of the Year
It’s about obsolescence. (The Grant Budapest Hotel, Goodbye to Language)

Most Apt Subtext of the Year
It’s all about the Benjamins. (The Immigrant; Two Days, One Night; Snowpiercer)

Most Overdue Subtext of the Year
It’s a fucking miracle every mother isn’t fucking compelled to murder her fucking bratty kids. (The Babadook)
—EH

*****

Most Underrated New Cinephile-Filmmaker: Justin Simien, Dear White People
Justin Simien's bright, funny debut—a college-set satire on contemporary race relations—stuffed so many ideas, subjects, and contrasting tones into its 108 minutes that it sometimes felt like the film equivalent of an afternoon spent arguing identity politics on Twitter. One of its most gratifying aspects, however, was also one of its most focused. Simien deserves great credit for weaving into the text a complex, engaged critique of historical black representation in American cinema. It’s no coincidence that its key character, Sam (Tessa Thompson), is a fledgling filmmaker, and Dear White People is most alive when she’s onscreen. Using Sam and her work as a conduit, Simien makes pointed references to the negative racial stereotypes which calcified in Birth of a Nation and flowered in Gone with the Wind, and brings things up to date with cheeky digs at Tyler Perry. In fact, Simien’s giddy cinephilia shines throughout. His style seems as influenced by Hal Ashby and Wes Anderson as Spike Lee, and in one delicious slice of discursive dialogue, a hitherto-silent college kid unexpectedly proclaims his love for Robert Altman (“Motherfucker goes in!”). There’s a heap of snark in Dear White People, but Simien’s love of cinema is real and palpable. —AC

Most Welcome Introduction: Roberto Minervini’s Texas Trilogy (The Passage, Low Tide, Stop the Pounding Heart)
Apparently some folks out there were aware that an Italian-born filmmaker was toiling away in Texas making the kind of small, attentive-to-place, off-the-beaten path films that that the designation “American indie” was created for in the first place, but I definitely wasn’t one of them. Thanks, then, to the Film Society of Lincoln Center for rounding them all up, much in the same way they did with Joanna Hogg’s films. Minervini’s three works, all shot in generally the same area and featuring overlapping characters, straddle that realism-unto-nonfiction line everyone’s talking about, and are all worth a look, but if you must pick one go with Low Tide. His latest, Stop the Pounding Heart, premiered at Cannes, but it’s Low Tide that evokes the films by a certain pair of Belgian brothers who have spent a lot of time on the Croisette—without feeling derivative or overreaching. The film, which closely follows a young boy left to his own devices by a single mom more interested in partying than parenting, reaches an unforgettable, dire climax, crystallizing the stakes of everything that we’ve seen in a single shot. It’s a film truly worthy of the hallowed label Dardenne-esque. —JR

Worst Joke: Top Five
Chris Rock is an eloquent and essential voice in our entertainment culture, not least because he endeavors to create non-pandering mainstream African-American comedy. It’s too bad, then, that in his frequently funny, occasionally trenchant, often childish, and finally disappointing auteurist statement of intent, Top Five, starring Rock as a version of himself and Rosario Dawson as the New York Times reporter interviewing him over the course of a day, he falls back on eliciting easy laughs from his viewers by goosing them in their well-prodded nerve centers. There is a shockingly lengthy interlude in which we learn that Dawson’s boyfriend is cheating on her with another man, and furthermore that his gayness had been foretold . . . due to his obsession with sticking things up his ass. This grade-school definition of homosexuality would be bad enough, but the punchline, in which Dawson enacts revenge on the closet case by inserting a hot sauce–doused tampon up his rectum, is genuinely uncomfortable—and for no greater comic truth I can ascertain. Judging from reports in Rock’s New Yorker profile and the audience I saw it with, the cluelessly homophobic joke went over like Pavlovian gangbusters. Someone as thoughtful and self-critiquing as Rock ought to know that a laugh this cheap can cost a lot in terms of integrity. —MK

Best Gyllenhaal: Enemy
I enjoyed Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler as much as the next guy—provided the next guy wasn’t one of the people pretending that this oddly anachronistic riff on Taxi Driver via Network was anything more than the sum of its old-guard influences and second-hand institutional critique of the television industry (such a brave target!). All respect to Gyllenhaal’s amusingly conceived and executed performance as an unflappable cipher who retains any and all information that helps him get ahead in his newly chosen field of crime-scene videography and otherwise fails to connect with other human beings on any level. He’s funny and, with his gnarly man-bun and reptile-eyed gaze (maybe he blinked himself out for all time in Prisoners), vivid and memorable. But it’s also, if we’re being honest, probably a pretty easy performance, to give as well as to appreciate: Gilroy pulls the old trick of making every other character in the movie a dull cliché so that his star burns all the more brightly. Denis Villeneuve’s underappreciated thriller Enemy is also a showcase for Gyllenhaal; it literally doubles down on his lead actor, giving him two roles—or is it one character with a psychic split—and allowing him to wring small, subtle variations on the characters’ shared befuddlement and paranoia. A Toronto-set tale of eXistenZ-ial identity crisis with Spider-y mise-en-scène, Enemy is downright Cronenbergian, and Gyllenhaal acts under the sign of Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, except that that earlier film’s subcutaneously buried sense of humor is right on the surface here: Villeneuve isn’t a deep-thinking filmmaker, but he’s smart enough to recognize that his adaptation of José Saramago’s novel is a comedy—and never more so than in its great final grace note, which trumps Nightcrawler’s wannabe-creepy 70s-ish ending with a hilarious shock cut to rival Carrie and Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. —AN

Most Anticlimactic Scene (a.k.a., the Vicki-Vale-Discovers-Batman’s-True-Identity-in-Tim-Burton’s-Batman Award, a.k.a the Nothing to see here, folks, let’s keep this script moving right along Award): Interstellar
Retired/shell-shocked astronaut Cooper (or “Coop”—we ain’t got time for first names, pal) walks into a secret NASA lair, barely reacts to colleagues he hasn’t seen in decades, and then, in less time than it takes to not laugh at a Geiko ad, agrees to rocket into space on a dozen year-long death mission in Interstellar. —EH

Most Overlooked Scene of Sexual Assault: Birdman
In Birdman, the behind-the-scenes lives of actors are embarrassing, farcical failures. Their only hope of redemption, or so the film would have us believe, is offered by the theater, which unlike film, is fraught with the tension of sustaining a live performance. On the stage, meaning is achieved through an actor’s “authenticity,” which for Alejandro González Iñárritu, translates to blunt actions with real, physical consequences. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) shoots off his nose with a loaded gun to earn the praise of a critic; he suffers, but is delivered into an ambiguous realm of the sublime for it. No such luck for Lesley (Naomi Watts). When her boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton) sexually assaults her—she repeatedly says “no” and struggles under his grip—as part of a method acting exercise, she responds not by treating it as the criminal act it is, but by complaining that Mike can’t get it up at home.The film treats rape as a cheap misogynist prank; it’s what this sex-starved shrew deserves. Her female costar, played by Andrea Riseborough, affirms this point of view when she describes Mike’s stunt as “kinda hot!” And like any gag, it has no lasting significance for the rest of the film, which would rather have us titter at a crude boner joke than take seriously the violence that has occurred. It’s shameful and irresponsible. And if it’s a matter of ignorance, there’s certainly no virtue in it. —GY

Best Supporting Lead Actress: Elisabeth Moss in Listen Up Philip
Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip is cannily designed to give its viewers extended reprieves from its heinous, bile-spewing protagonist, diverging to follow the separate lives of Ashley, Philip’s eventual ex-girlfriend, played by Elisabeth Moss; and Ike Zimmerman, played by Jonathan Pryce. Both are excellent, though special mention must be made of Moss, who adds another multilayered, moment-for-moment compelling characterization to an impressively growing roster. In a structural twist that other writer-directors would do well to emulate, after Ashley breaks up with Philip once and for all, the film continues to follow her character as she goes about her daily life, reminisces a little, and gradually picks herself back up. It’s a great idea, and it especially works because Moss is such a giving actor, expressing so much with so little. By granting her so much of her own space and time, Perry makes a supporting part into a leading role. She’s not propping anyone else up. —MK

Road Movie to Nowhere: Ida
Twitter makes contrarians of us all, but I was unprepared for the minor imbroglio —angry replies from the usually circumspect Nick Pinkerton!—that ensued when I tweeted one evening in November that Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida was, for me at least, the most “grueling ‘good’ movie of 2014.” Now, for critics and cinephiles of a particular persuasion, “grueling” can be an enticing adjective along the lines of “sexy” or “exciting” —i.e. “oh man, Story of My Death was just gruelingbut at a lean and mean 80 minutes, Ida doesn’t fit into the company of most “slow cinema,” nor does it style itself as any kind of endurance test. Its story of a cloistered young novice on a road trip of self-discovery is easy to follow and Pawlikowski’s stylegrave black-and-white frames elongated vertically into Academy ratio—isn’t going to turn off anybody who sees more than ten movies a year. No, what rankles—what is in fact, grueling—about this perfectly well made art film is how little it risks. Its title character’s realization of her Jewish heritage (and attendant spiritual dislocation) is so predictableand acted with such requisite woman-of-marble blankness by non-pro Agata Trzebuchowskathat any frisson is purely conceptual. Ditto the character’s gradual embrace of the modernity she’s been previously shielded from, which presents itself in episodes so ritualizeda sexy jazz club here; sex with a sexy jazzman a bit later—that they might be the Stations of the Cross. For a film that seems to distrust dogma and all its smooth institutional accoutermentsa Catholic convent is shot like a frigid prison—Ida is plenty pious, offering up devotions to the elder gods of the sixties European new waves (Wadja, yes, but also Forman and, above and beyond them, Bresson). Are you there, guys? It’s him, Pawel. —AN

Funniest Beefcake: Channing Tatum
22 Jump Street is a pretty problematic film—there’s a joke near the end about misuse of the word “faggot” that is transparently designed as an alibi for the absolute shit-torrent of gay panic gags that preceded it. But 22 Jump Street also has two things in its favor: the first is that it comes from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, so it is cleverer and funnier than any dumb frat boy comedy has any right to be; the second is Channing Tatum, who stars as a gridiron-playing bro-hemoth. Here is an actor who’s been receiving plaudits for some time (most recently for his dramatic turn in the Oscar-tipped Foxcatcher), all of which were presumably borne out of a collective surprise that he could actually talk. When the likes of Lee Marvin, Rip Torn, and Robert Ryan opted to become actors, it’s a fair guess no one teased them about it, for fear of a fat lip. Nowadays you could probably count on the fingers of one hand Hollywood stars who look like they can genuinely play sports, handle themselves in a fight (I wouldn’t fancy, say, Ryan Gosling’s chances against Tatum, though I’d pay handsomely to watch him try) and be funny on purpose. This leaves Tatum beginning to look like one of a kind. While most actors whose physical qualities got them into the business (Schwarzenegger, Stallone) ventured into comedy despite being severely ill equipped to do so, Tatum’s faux-sensitive hangdog routine in 22 Jump Street is technically impeccable and absolutely priceless. He should stop wasting his time in drama. Time to remake Kindergarten Cop, Junior, or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot? —JA

Most Beautiful: Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen’s latest didn’t get much love and was generally regarded as a mild bit of sentimental claptrap—a less funny Scoop, if you will. Sure, the narrative is paper thin, the closing twist visible from miles off, but in the labored-over care Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji put into their long, intricate, otherworldly-lit takes, a different reading of the film emerges. Magic is a film that just glows, from the golden nighttime sequences outside of its central South of France manse, to its sun-dappled afternoon idylls in the garden, to its blinding bright trips to the shore. The magic of the title doesn’t apply to the predictions of Emma Stone’s clairvoyant or the stage trickery conjured up by Colin Firth’s illusionist, but to that of the movies itself, which can make the world around us shimmer. Magic may be slight of story, but it has the regal, autumnal quality of a work by a master—one who throughout his career has been interested in different forms of cons and chicanery, and who knows his days are numbered yet wants to hang on to the light a little bit longer. —JR

The Jaume Collet-Serra Award for Achievement in Films Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra: Jaume Collet-Serra, Non-Stop
This is the second time we’ve given out this particular award, and sadly to say, it’s actually by default this time. Kudos to Jaume Collet-Serra for being a genuinely gifted B-moviemaker, but his new thriller about an alcoholic air marshal (Liam Neeson) matching wits with a killer at 30,000 feet wasn’t as much fun as 2011’s delectable Europudding Unknown, to say nothing of 2009’s Orphan, a bad-taste classic that would make for a fun mommy-trauma double-bill with The Babadook. Those films (and even parts of his House of Wax remake) married expressive visual schemes to generic material; Non-Stop, from a hacky script by three writers, has a poetic early image of a plane swooping in for a landing and dwarfing the hero in the foreground, and proceeds from there as a strictly machine-tooled ride (one whose major twist is arguably more tasteless than anything in Orphan, and I am including the scene where a sweet nun is done in by a claw hammer to the skull). Of course, it’s not without merit: Collet-Serra does more with onscreen text messages—graphically and narratively—than Jason Reitman in Men, Women and Children, and there’s a fistfight in a locked airplane latrine that utilizes an array of quietly ingenious camera angles to convey the requisite sense of claustrophobia while still showing off the combatants’ moves. It’s also nice to report that in a year in which she won an acting award in Cannes (for Maps to the Stars) and may score an Oscar (for Still Alice), Julianne Moore also managed to make something of her throwaway role as a spooked passenger who doubles as a potential love interest for crabby old Liam—she’s good enough, in fact, that I almost made it to the end of the movie without remembering Chloe. —AN

Fireworks in the Summer Sky Award for Most Played-Out Documentary Shot of the Year
Fireworks in the summer sky.

Fireworks in the Summer Sky Award for Second Most Played-Out Documentary Shot of the Year
Hold an extra beat for tears.

The Alfred Molina Award for Overacting: Ed Harris in Snowpiercer
After the surviving few of the motley crew of makeshift warriors have stormed their way to the front of the train in Bong Joon-ho’s super-silly vision of postapocalypse, we finally meet Mr. Wilford, the villainous grand pooh-bah of this constantly looping, runaway train-cum-social-microcosm. And He Is Ed Harris. When this was revealed, there were chortles of appreciative recognition in my theater—the kind that would normally break a movie’s spell, but which in this case seemed perfectly appropriate. Acting with the same put-on faux gravitas he used as “Christof” in The Truman Show, Harris is one salty slab of ham in Snowpiercer, overbaked even amidst one of recent films’ most shamelessly histrionic casts of characters and goofiest scenarios. Clothed in a natty bathrobe, eating an indulgent meal of steak and potatoes before a requisite crystal wine glass and decanter, Harris gesticulates and minces in a very actorly fashion while calmly monologuing, detailing to our hero Curtis (Chris Evans) that every step he’s made has been prearranged for him and explaining in interminable fashion just who it is that makes this engine run. “You must tend the engine; keep her humming!” Harris enunciates with severe earnestness. Trying to underscore for Curtis the inevitably of his society’s class hierarchy, this total capitalist pig reasons, more than once, “Everyone has their own preordained position.” Yes, and Harris’s has become long-winded men behind the curtain. —MK

The Alfred Molina Award for Understated Acting: Alfred Molina in Love Is Strange
Well, look at this! The actor we’re so used to enjoyably jackhammering out sweaty, stammering, tooth-baring approximations of human behavior (see Chocolat, Magnolia, Identity, Spider-Man 2, The Hoax, An Education, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice . . .) turned in a performance of radiant empathy and subtlety in Ira Sachs’s overwhelmingly poignant drama. In this cleverly conceived, socially trenchant update of Leo McCarey’s 1937 masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow, Molina and John Lithgow play an aging, childless couple in New York who are financially unable to continue living in their lovely Manhattan apartment and agree to temporarily separate, moving in with friends and neighbors until they can find a more feasible situation. Neither Lithgow nor Molina, longtime stage actors with well-honed, booming voices, is known for underplaying, yet their performances as these lovers—decent men in a casually indecent world—are quietly drawn miracles. Molina is especially remarkable for the ways in which he constantly defuses scenes that might have become Oscar-clip-ready powerhouses (a confrontation with a NYC housing agent, a tearful late-night reunion between the separated men). Molina’s work here is so beautiful, in fact, that we may have to rename this annual award. The Paul Giamatti Legacy Award, anyone? —MK

Least Revealing Movie: Interior. Leather Bar.
The premise of James Franco and Travis Mathews’ documentary-fiction hybrid—a film about the recreation of the alleged missing, explicit forty minutes from William Friedkin’s 1980 film maudit Cruising—promised so much exposure: not just of men’s bodies but of heteronormative cultural presumptions. The combination of Mathews and Franco—the former gay and the latter straight, if legendarily gay-curious—would seem to point toward some sort of groundbreaking, binary-dissolving exploration of entrenched ideas of sexuality and representation. Unfortunately, Franco’s maniacal ego appeared to overwhelm the project, and most of the film’s slender running time is taken over with the faux behind-the-scenes handwringing of a straight actor (Franco pal Val Lauren) skittish about playing gay in the movie-within-the-movie. However self-aware, this thread only serves to distance the director and actor, and therefore its straight viewership, from the meat of the film. And there isn’t much meat at all—other than a few teasing shots of greased-up guys in leather harnesses dancing in slow-motion around a cheap bar set, and some climactic shots of a gay porn shoot (which has nothing to do with Cruising as far as I can tell) tempered by reaction shots of our freaked-out actor. A question thus arises: if Val is meant to be the audience’s surrogate, did Franco and Mathews think this was a film that straight people would flock to? If not, then who is the film’s point of identification? With no clear artistic or political perspective, Interior. Leather Bar. is the definition of failed experiment. —MK

Worst The Tree of Life Rip: Lucy
Did the new Luc Besson thriller featuring ScarJo OD’ing on a drug that turns her into an ultra-intelligent, post-human action hero really need a extended trip through time back to the creation of the world? I’ll answer with another question: when has Besson been a filmmaker at all concerned with necessity? (Future Reverse Shot symposium: Excessive Excessivity—The Films of Luc Besson.) So, in the midst of one of the most tediously staged on-screen firefights in recent memory, he sends his heroine flitting backwards through the ages in an office chair, stopping to startle some hunting Native Americans, and later to peep on some dinosaurs on her way to leaving corporeality behind entirely. It makes no real sense, is rather sexist (it removes Lucy to let the menfolk fight things out), and is a bit of cheap transcendence for the sake of additional production value. Besson knows this well, and as the film finishes and the credits roll we can hear him laughing unconcernedly all the way to the bank just the same. —JR

Best The Tree of Life Rip: Noah
Darren Aronofsky has always been one of our more self-serious filmmakers, but Noah reveals that perhaps the main problem with his oeuvre thus far—the reason why his films don’t stick in our craws—is that his subject matter (mental breakdown, drug addiction, death, masculine failure, female identity crises) just hasn’t been serious enough. Thankfully, his biblical epic Noah offered him the most bleak and grand canvas possible: the apocalypse. This ambitious statement, as expected, involves ending the world and everything in it by flood, but unexpectedly includes a dramatization of scientific evolution; it’s a sequence that utilizes his penchant for flashy cutting and shot-making to cram a bit of wholesale secularism into one of those greatest stories ever told. It’s this bit, along with the film’s overall harmony between aesthetic sensibility and narrative arc (the shoe finally fits!) that makes Noah, improbably, Aronofsky’s best movie. —JR

Bronzed Dinner Roll: Roman Polanski
Cinema as dinner theater. After the hysterical dramatics of the terrible Carnage and the hoary battle-of-the-sexes Venus in Fur, it’s time for Roman Polanski to start finding better material. We’re all for inventively claustrophobic, single-set film adaptations of plays, but it was difficult for even Polanski to rise about the inherent falseness of this silly material. —MK

Best Prop: The Babadook
Though I’m flummoxed as to why anyone would want to have it sitting on their shelf, like a demon in wait, I’m not surprised that the central prop from Jennifer Kent’s excellent Australian horror movie, a red-felt-covered, pop-up Pandora’s box titled Mister Babadook, is now available to buy. It’s the kind of tactile object that can ground an entire film and that can trigger the salivary glands of movie fetishists everywhere. Featuring a hair-raisingly ragged pencil style and a childlike simplicity of line, the book, illustrated by Alex Juhasz, appears in an increasingly suspenseful fashion in the film. When Essie Davis’s frazzled mommy first reads it to her terrible tot, she can’t finish it for the tearful tantrum it elicits. But as the book keeps reappearing (literally on her doorstep at one point), we see more and more of it. The pop-ups get more elaborate, the maw of the story’s monster gets wider. Being that Juhasz’s terrifying creations are really all we see in The Babadook, it was crucial that he got it right, and did he ever. We feel like we’ve seen an entire closet full of monsters by the end of the film, even if we’ve only been haunted by shadows. —MK

But What About . . . Oculus
That any horror film is even discussed at the end of the year is a rare positive, and Australia’s lauded The Babadook deserves all the praise it’s received, including a Best First Film nod from the New York Film Critics Circle for director Jennifer Kent. But what about Oculus, which is also less about its seeming boogeyman (in this case, a scary old mirror) than about the fractured familial relationships it reflects and—maybe—influences, much for the worse? From Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, The Purge), Oculus doesn’t necessarily benefit from comparisons to the richer Babadook, though both mostly stick to one house, feature always-disturbing parent-on-child violence, and are as much about events from the past as the present. What’s remarkable is how deftly director-editor Mike Flanagan interweaves parallel timelines (always with the teasing possibility of hallucination), so that events in one room (a 2002 husband-wife murder, say) lead naturally, through crosscutting, to an equivalent reaction from the offspring in another, in 2013. Oculus also includes the year’s most elaborate “Chekhov’s gun,” a mirror-threatening “kill switch” fashioned with levers, pulleys, a timer, and one deadly spiked block, as well as violently red-headed protagonist Karen Gillan biting into a lightbulb she thinks is an apple—a viscerally repellent moment revealing a fear I didn’t even know I had. —JS

Best Close-up: Isabelle Huppert in Abuse of Weakness
Catherine Breillat’s dramatization of her own experiences being (wittingly?) duped and financially drained by a charming con artist who promised to collaborate with her on a big-screen project was one of the year’s genuinely discomfiting movies. Throughout, we are brought physically close to our protagonist, filmmaker Maud Shainberg, a Breillat surrogate played by Isabelle Huppert; yet regardless of literal distance between the camera lens and the character, Huppert’s freckled frozenness keeps up at a cool arm’s length. What did she expect when she took this known criminal—handsome, muscular, street-wise—under her wing? Was it all a sexual thrill? Did this stranger, in some way, become her only real lifeline? Making her motivations and knowledge even trickier to parse is the fact that, as was the case with Breillat, this all happens during her recuperation from a serious stroke. Breillat’s film is intentionally repetitive and frustrating and one of the least flattering self-portrayals I’ve seen. Then, after 100 minutes of upsetting ambiguities, Breillat gives us a stunning close-up of Huppert as she is finally responding to direct questions about her self-sabotaging actions. Surely this moment will explain her enigmas? Huppert’s bravura final words and barely held-together emotions conceal as much as they betray. She’s taking it to the grave. —MK

*****

Most Misleading Title: Two Days, One Night
This latest thriller from the Dardenne brothers, which follows an average laborer pushed to convince a majority of her coworkers to vote in her favor in order to stave off unemployment, seems to begin on Friday, follow its protagonist through one tense weekend, then finish after a crucial workplace vote . . . on Monday. This pair of Belgian leftists can manufacture empathy for the working classes like nobody’s business, but they sure can’t count. No wonder Marxism didn’t work out. —JR

Most Inappropriate Title: Love Is Strange [Looks wonderfully mundane to me]

Most Grammatically Infuriating Title: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) [What’s with those parentheses, my fine feathered friend?]

Most Vulnerable Title: Boyhood [Had it been called by its original title, 12 Years, would there be as much talk about its supposed gender myopia?]

Least Original Titles: Like Father, Like Son; Neighbors; Night Moves; Under the Skin [Haven’t I seen those movies before?]

Funnest Title to Type: Manakamana
—MK

*****

Most Welcome Return: Alejandro Jodorowsky
It’s been thirteen years since we last heard from Chilean madman Alejandro Jodorowsky, he of acid-fried El Topo and The Holy Mountain fame. Whether you like his films or not, aren’t you glad that there’s a filmmaker out there willing to cast his son in a lead role, strip him naked, tie him up, and attach some electrodes to his balls? Watch this in The Dance of Reality, along with other Jodorowsky standbys: bloody violence, overblown spiritual imagery, deformed and disabled performers, undressed females that make Titian’s nudes look malnourished. Here, in a film that retells the director’s own coming of age, there’s also a lovely strand of sentimentality and a tacit acknowledgment that it isn’t necessarily an artistic retreat to create a narrative that viewers might actually be able to follow. Welcome back, weird buddy. —JR

Best Kids: We Are the Best!
Rarely do child actors streak across the screen with such, authentic lovable abandon as the uniformly wonderful Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, and Liv LeMoyne in Lukas Moodysson’s paean to teenage punkdom and the joys and pitfalls of being a really cool little girl.
Worst Kid: Wild
Cheryl Strayed may have been moved to tears by the impromptu serenade of a little boy she met in the woods at a crucial moment during her hike of self-discovery, but on-screen, young Evan O’Toole, as “Kyle,” comes across as little more than a performing monkey for the camera as he stands stock-still and looks terrified while belting out a rendition of “Red River Valley.” The bit of manufactured transcendence elicited little more than an eye roll from me, but Reese Witherspoon’s wet cheeks informed me I was supposed to be crying. —MK

Most Surprising Pipes: Emily Blunt
We’ve known Anna Kendrick could do Sondheim way back when we saw her decimate “The Ladies Who Lunch” when she was all of seventeen in Camp; Meryl Streep has been surprising memory-addled moviegoers with her vocal prowess every few years since 1990 (Postcards from the Edge, Death Becomes Her, A Prairie Home Companion, Mamma Mia); and much of the rest of the cast of Into the Woods have appeared on Broadway at some point. But in the central role of the Baker’s Wife, Emily Blunt was the real revelation in Rob Marshall’s somewhat successful Disney version of the great 1987 musical, injecting her every lyric with wit and emotional clarity, not to mention a pleasantly lilting mezzo-soprano. And since the Baker’s Wife is saddled with some of the most difficult, musically complicated songs in the show (“Moments in the Woods,” “It Takes Two”), Blunt’s accomplishment is all the more impressive. —MK

Hardest to Watch (in a good way): It Felt Like Love
If you didn’t want to step into the screen and put an arm around wayward tween Lila (Gina Piersanti) during Eliza Hittman’s finely honed coming-of-age study then you might be a sociopath. Hittman’s hugely empathetic Brooklyn-set drama follows a young girl on the precipice of sexual awakening during one long, hot summer. You’ve seen movies like this before, maybe, but it’s all about the experience of watching it, and it’s a singularly immersive film. As she begins to explore her own sexuality, she begins to put herself in increasingly dangerous, even mortifying situations. The difference between this and a drama of true female debasement, like, say Breaking the Waves or Thirteen, is that Hittman isn’t remotely interested in exploiting her protagonist. She wants to open our eyes to someone who’s about to enter a confusing, often disappointing world—even if we’re often watching through our fingers. —MK