"If everything were great, nothing would be great."
That line, from Scott Coffey's smart and sweetly entertaining Adult World, is one of my favorite bits of movie dialogue from 2014, not least because it's applicable to every movie genre — actually, every genre of everything. But in the movie world especially, this is the time of year when those of us who care about this thriving, ever-changing art form need to take stock, make ruthless choices, and come up with some sort of a ranking that reflects the greatest movies of the previous year. Now: How to define "greatest"? I prefer a freewheeling and joyous approach. What movies haunted me for days, weeks, or longer? Which ones brought me that ever-elusive figurative cask of jewels known as delight? Which movies made me laugh, even on the grimmest of days? If everything were great, nothing would be great. But however I define "greatness," in 2014, these movies came up at the top of the heap.
1. Under the Skin — Jonathan Glazer's woozy hallucination of a movie — and Scarlett Johansson's performance, as an alien who learns the hard way just what it takes to be human — confounded and challenged me and moved me in ways I wouldn't have thought possible. Why else go to the movies?
2. Boyhood — An ambitious and clever undertaking that could easily have turned into a filmmaking disaster. Instead, in telling the story of one family's life over the course of 12 years — and allowing the actors to age in real time — Richard Linklater ends up with a quiet stunner of a movie that yields to time rather than try to bend it to its will.
3. Only Lovers Left Alive — In Jim Jarmusch's lush vampire romance, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play a couple in love forever: with music, with literature, with each other, and with the whole sorry world. This is Jarmusch's most emotionally direct film since Dead Man; he has never been better.
4. Mr. Turner — This free-verse biopic about 19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner, painter of misty, turbulent, luminous seascapes and arguably the first Impressionist, may be the finest picture ever made by English curmudgeon Mike Leigh and features the performance of Timothy Spall's career. Hmmmf.
5. The Immigrant — Is there room for romantic melodrama in American movies? James Gray thinks so, and he's raised the stakes with this one. Marion Cotillard works transcendence, despair, anxiety, and more than a few drops of defiance into this wondrous performance.
6. Revenge of the Mekons, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, and 20,000 Days on Earth — Three documentaries about the need to keep making, and listening to, rock 'n' roll against all odds. Nothing else — not even $150-an-ounce Crème de la Mer — will keep you so young.
7. Love Is Strange — Ira Sachs made a generous and deeply touching picture that's partly about gay marriage but mostly about love, New York, and real estate, all of which can conspire to break you. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, in career-topping performances, play a couple who survive it all, giving hope to the rest of us.
8. The Missing Picture — Cambodian-born director Rithy Panh uses clay dolls to make a documentary-memoir hybrid of life under the Khmer Rouge. This picture, unlike anything I've ever seen, is a strange and beautiful work that comes off as both haunted and charmed.
9. John Wick — The puppy death nearly killed me, but the debut picture from veteran stunt men Chad Stahelski and David Leitch — starring the cosmically serene Keanu Reeves — has so much life in it that I couldn't turn away. In its most savage moments, John Wick is an action film that revels in the glory of human movement.
10. Top Five — As Blanche DuBois said, "Sometimes there's God so quickly." And sometimes the right movie shows up at the right time. Chris Rock's hilarious, piercing, and gloriously New York-centric Top Five, about a comedian and actor who's lost the will to be funny, offers a shard of cautious hope not just for a fractured city but also for a nation that seems close to breaking apart. Let's not give up on either just yet.
And don't forget: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Two Days, One Night, Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language 3D, Tate Taylor's Get On Up, John Turturro's Fading Gigolo, Luc Besson's Lucy, Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights, Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best!, Justin Simien's Dear White People, Marco Bellocchio's Dormant Beauty, Pascale Ferran's Bird People, Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure, Scott Coffey's Adult World, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel's Finding Vivian Maier, and last but not least, Kim Ki-duk's way, way out-there Moebius — for a hot-dog-eating contest the likes of which you've never seen.