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And now, at long last, we get to the final stretch of the race: my selections for the Best Films of 2014. I’ve already listed my favorite horror films of the year but this is the overall list: everything gets thrown into the same pot, regardless of genre. Astute readers will definitely notice a little overlap with the horror list but I attempted to use two very different sets of criteria for judging the films: what may make a film one of the best horror movies of the year won’t necessarily make it one of the best overall films of the year and vice versa.

This was an especially difficult list to make this year for one main reason: I saw an awful lot of good-to-great films in 2014. I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of the “obvious” choices for Best of the Year, such as Nightcrawler or Boyhood, but I did manage to see most of the underdogs and “dark horses,” so to speak. None of this, of course, is by way of saying that my choices are any more valid than the mainstream: we just have slightly different priorities, that’s all.

For me, I define a truly great picture in a very specific way: it really has to move me. It can make me mad as hell, so giddy I’m karate-kicking the wall or so heart-broken that I want to die…but it damn well better make me feel something more than just entertained. Lots of films are entertaining (there are even parts of Sharknado that are entertaining, surprisingly enough) but that’s not quite good enough to make that kind of impression on me. After whittling the 350+ films I watched last year down to a shortlist of the very best 2014 titles, I’ve managed to whittle that down even further to my 21 favorite films of the year. Unlike the horror list, this won’t be in any particular order, save the top slot: if I thought whittling the list down to 20 was impossible (it was), then ranking them seems about as likely as flapping my arms and achieving liftoff.

With no further ado, I now present the first half of my Best of 2014 list. Make sure your trays are in the upright position, fasten your belts and prepare for take-off.

The Twenty-One Best Films of 2014

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Is The Grand Budapest Hotel Wes Anderson’s “ultimate” film? Despite my never-ending love of and loyalty to Rushmore, I might need to concede this point. Everything about the film speaks to some aspect of Anderson’s back catalog: the fascination with miniatures; the blink-and-you-miss-’em cameos; the “missing father” dynamic that’s at the heart of nearly all his films; the immaculately fashioned production design; the gorgeous cinematography; the “iron fist in a velvet glove” repartee; the intentionally screwy timeline…it’s all here. Holding the whole production together, however, are two of the best performances of the entire year: Ralph Fiennes absolutely owns the film as the impossibly cool, suave M. Gustave but he’s very nearly upstaged by young Tony Revolori as the eternally loyal lobby boy, Zero. There’s a real sense of joy and wonder to the film, along with the requisite Andersonian sense of tragic romance and a supremely dark edge, as well: there’s a real sense of menace and violence to The Grand Budapest that’s strangely missing from most of Anderson’s other films. Plus, you get Willem Dafoe in one of his funnest roles in years. The Grand Budapest Hotel brings Anderson back to the fore in a big way.

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Only Lovers Left Alive

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As a rule, I’m not the biggest vampire fan in the world but leave it to Jarmusch to force me to include a vampire flick on my Best of Year list. Only Lovers Left Alive is lush, atmospheric and hazy, the perfect complement to the Bohemian bloodsuckers at its center. There’s something swooningly romantic about the relationship between Adam and Eve, a romance that’s spanned across continents and centuries. Set against the decaying backdrop of modern-day Detroit, Jarmusch spins his usual web and everything about the film is as immaculate as miniature diorama: extra points for John Hurt’s delightful performance as the rakish Christopher Marlowe, Eve’s “shoulder to cry on” since the time of Shakespeare. This isn’t just one of the best films of the year: it’s one of the best films in Jarmusch’s long, distinguished career.

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We Are the Best!

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Perfectly capturing the frustrations, joys and miseries of being young and on the fringes of “polite” society, We Are the Best! is, without a doubt, one of the most joyful, exuberant films I saw all year. There’s something undeniably kickass about watching the trio of young girls at the center of the film slowly gain confidence, leading up to the joyful middle-finger attitude that sends the whole thing off on a happy note. Were this just a peppy story, it wouldn’t have stuck the landing as one of the best of the year: writer-director Lukas Moodysson guides everything with an assured hand, however, giving the proceedings just enough bite to give them weight. The scene where Hedvig blows away the chauvinistic music teachers with her display of guitar pyrotechnics may be one of my favorites of the whole year: if you don’t stand and cheer, you probably have coal instead of a heart.

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Go For Sisters

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I’ve followed legendary writer-director John Sayles career since I was a kid: Piranha (his first script) was one of my favorite movies, growing up, and I can still remember the first time I saw The Brother From Another Planet. Quite frankly, there’s no one else out there quite like Sayles and there never will be: with an almost uncanny knack for vivid characters and the ability to twist even the most straight-forward situation into a knot, Sayles is truly one of the keystones of “classic” indie film, right along with Jarmusch and Soderbergh. Go For Sisters is Sayles’ second home-run in a row, after the stellar Amigo (2010), and may be one of his best, most fun and most accomplished films yet. This time around, he gets phenomenal performances from LisaGay Hamilton and Yolonda Ross as former best friends who end up on opposite sides of the law, yet must rekindle their friendship in order to help Hamilton find her missing son. Edward James Olmos is reliably excellent as the former lawman-turned-private eye but the entire film, part and parcel, belongs to Hamilton and Ross: if there was any justice in this world, they’d both get nominated for Oscars.

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A Field in England

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Trippy, surreal, bizarre and intense, Ben Wheatley’s amazing A Field in England is the closest a film has brought me to insanity since the first time I watched Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain…umm…”altered,” shall we say.  For most of its runtime, the film is a strange little oddity about deserters during the British Civil War of the 1700s who stumble upon a strange, featureless and unbelievably foreboding field in the middle of nowhere. At a certain point, however, it’s like Wheatley cracks open the egg of knowledge right in your face, splattering your brain pan with so much terrifying insanity that it makes you physically ill. For one of the few times in my entire life, I sat staring at the screen, my mouth hanging wide, drooling everywhere: it’s no lie to say that, for one brief moment, I was standing on the downward slope of sanity, fully prepared to slide off into the abyss. Hyperbole? Maybe but we can talk after the film blows your head off and puts it back upside-down. This, friends and neighbors, is truly experimental cinema at its very best.

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Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

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I’m going to assume that the sound I hear is all of the spit-takes out there, so I’ll give you all a moment to compose yourselves…ready? Good. How, exactly, did the Steve Coogan vehicle Alan Partridge end up on my Best of list? Isn’t this just another dumb big-screen version of another TV show/radio show/Broadway play/public access show/dinner theater-type thingamabob? Maybe yes, maybe no: I’ll admit to knowing nothing whatsoever about the character until I sat down to watch the film, so that certainly wasn’t the draw for me. Here’s what I can say, however: Alan Partridge is, without a doubt, the funniest film I saw in 2014, hands-down. In fact, I laughed so hard at the film that I was frequently crying, when I wasn’t almost falling out of my chair. Ladies and gentlemen: I haven’t laughed that hard in…well, I honestly can’t remember. Everything about the film is hilarious and quote-worthy: from the dream sequence involving a mob of Alans to the awesome dialogue to some of the very best sight gags I’ve ever seen, Alan Partridge is a film that keeps raising the comedy bar, yet effortlessly sails over it every time. Colm Meaney is marvelous as Alan’s put-upon and marginalized co-worker but Steve Coogan is an absolute god as the titular moron. Everything about this film is a complete winner: I’d be shocked if this isn’t considered a cult classic within the next decade or so…you can bet your forensic trousers on it!

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The Babadook

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In a year that seemed to split horror fans and critics in a million different directions, there was one thing that almost everyone could agree on: Jennifer Kent’s amazing debut film, The Babadook, was easily one of the highlights. Genuinely scary and with an air of originality missing from much popular horror fare, this Australian tale of a troubled mother and son facing down pure evil is old-fashioned horror given a bright, shiny new coat. If The Babadook were only a full-throttle horror flick, however, it never would have made it past my Best of Horror list. Instead, Kent’s film is just as much about the trials and tortures that parents must deal with when raising children, especially if said children are as immensely troubled as young Samuel is. When the film lets loose, it’s almost too raw to watch: the scenes where the mother tells her young son how much she hates him would be utterly horrifying, with or without the eerie specter of Mr. Babadook hanging over everything.

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Enemy

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The first thing you’ll notice about Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is the sickly, jaundice-yellow hue that seems to infect every frame of the film like some sort of creeping mold, followed by the oppressively thick atmosphere of dread that hangs over everything like a pall. After that, you might notice how many truly odd things happen in the margins of the frame and how little explanation we get for anything that happens. Later on, you might notice how this seemingly simple tale of a man running across his doppelgänger keeps turning and folding over on itself, like a pulsating amoeba cleaving itself in two. By the time you get to the truly stunning finale, an absolutely terrifying revelation that’s the equivalent of waking from a dream and plunging into a nightmare, one thing should be clear beyond all else: Villeneuve’s film is the perfect horror tonic for our era, a surreal dreamscape where the rat race, our eternal search for immortality and our inability to resist flipping over as many rocks as we can results in our complete and utter destruction. Absolutely unforgettable, Enemy is, without a doubt, one of the finest films to come from a rather fine year.

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Witching & Bitching

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Alex de la Iglesia’s newest film, Witching & Bitching, opens with a gold heist that involves body-painted street performers (Silver Jesus for the win!) and climaxes with a pitched battle against a towering, blind fertility goddess. Stuffed between these two poles we get plenty of snarky “battle of the sexes” commentary (much of it quite politically incorrect, shall we say), some jaw-dropping practical effects, a sense of humor that can best be described as “out there” (one of the film’s best, most outrageous scenes involves someone hiding inside a toilet) and a romantic angle that starts as a joke and finishes in just about the sweetest way possible. This is a big, loud horror-comedy-fantasy that isn’t afraid to shoot for Peter Jackson by way of Steven Spielberg territory, while still manages to (usually) keep at least one foot anchored on solid ground. Even for a career as varied and delightful as de la Iglesia’s, Witching & Bitching is one varied, delightful film.

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The One I Love

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Without a doubt, one of the biggest, best surprises of the entire year, Charlie McDowell’s extraordinary The One I Love is that most impossible of things: an intelligent, trippy, doppelganger-themed love story that manages to shatter conventions left and right. The whole film is grounded by one of my favorite duos of the year, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss: the two are so perfect as the imperfect couple looking to “fix” their broken marriage by way of shrink Ted Danson’s dubious “immersion” therapy that they almost overshadow the rest of the film. Note that I say “almost,” however, since The One I Love has a way of burrowing under your skin and taking root. At times laugh-out-loud funny, at times sinister, occasionally baffling and always brilliant, this was one of the freshest, most original films I saw all year. I know I’ve said this before but in a much weaker year, The One I Love would be a tough act to follow.

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And there we have it: the first half of my Best Films of 2014, in random order. Tune in later as we finish off with the other eleven, including my pick for the very best film of 2014. What will take it all? Who will be left in the dust? Who will survive and what will be left of them? Stay tuned, loyal readers…stay tuned.

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