When I consider The Lego Movie to be in the company of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Jacques Tati’s Playtime, it isn’t only because all three movies have meaningful things to say about social engineering. And it’s not only because all three celebrate the way creativity will always trump oppressive conformity. It’s also because each employs the dominant visual aesthetic of its day (in this case computer animation) to be side-splittingly, goofily funny.
As “Willis” (Willis Earl Beale) trudges around Memphis, wrestling with himself, his city and God, the music of the real-life Beale (an alt-blues musician, working here with writer-director Tim Sutton) scratches at the movie’s edges like a raspy ghost. Add imagery that baffles and beatifies, and this is a movie you don’t necessarily watch – you let it soak through your skin.
All hail hand-drawn animation! (At least at long as it lasts.) In the fading days of the art form, here is another argument for its place alongside slick technology like, um, The Lego Movie. This adaptation of a Japanese folktale is delicate, impulsive and delightfully unfinished in a way no computer could match.
4. The Rover
A feral Guy Pearce pursues his stolen family sedan across a post-apocalyptic landscape because … well, if you think the answer will justify the awfulness the movie takes us through, then the joke’s on you. Director David Michod (Animal Kingdom) upends our sense of civilization and justice in a movie that’s all about loss.
Wes Anderson has never been fussier, Ralph Fiennes has never been funnier and I don’t know if I’ve longed more for a time and place that never existed. In tracing the comic, melancholy life of a hotel concierge in fictional, pre-war Europe, Anderson not only employs nostalgia. He conjures it.
This year’s “you could hang any frame on a wall” entry is, to be fair, far more than a deeply rich series of black-and-white compositions. As it follows a young nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) in 1960s Poland who learns some surprising family history, Ida also functions as a challenging consideration of identity and faith.
In Jim Jarmusch’s elegant riff on horror conventions, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton may be the vampires, but we’re the zombies. They’ve watched for centuries as we’ve floundered about, occasionally stumbling across great art but rarely recognizing it. As a critic, I left the movie chastened – and fearful of disappointing them.
What took me aback earlier in the year – the brazen way Maleficent refashioned Sleeping Beauty into a tale of patriarchal oppression and rapacious men – only grew in potency as campus sexual assaults became one of the major stories of 2014. Turns out Angelina Jolie did more than give a delicious performance; she made a movie that mattered.
9. The Babadook
The little tweaks that first-time writer-director Jennifer Kent gives to the horror genre here mark her as a talent to watch. As a mother (Essie Davis) and her troubled little boy (Noah Wiseman) are terrorized by a creepy pop-up book, our genre expectations don’t hold. A demon-child tale turns into an evil mother thriller turns into an internal psychological battle. One thing’s constant: you’ll be scared.
10. Under the Skin
The year’s Rorschach test movie: with malleable imagery and an ambiguous narrative, director Jonathan Glazer offered a sensory experience that can mean a multitude of things. I took it as a treatise on body image, with Scarlett Johansson’s predatory female figure turning the tables on leering men. But that’s probably simplifying something that is, at the end of the day, inexplicably eerie and alarming.