2014 was a rough year, but the movies didn’t serve as escape; they offered accidental echoes of real life. The tragedies in Ferguson and Staten Island were reflected in angry, sharp movies about race: “Dear White People,” “Selma,” even the broad, inclusive comedy stylings of Chris Rock’s “Top Five.” General anxieties about death and time passing were amplified in “Boyhood,” “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “National Gallery,” or the beliggerent/seductive alien movies “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Under the Skin.” The crappiness of people could be seen in the sociopaths of “Listen Up Philip” and “Whiplash.” It was a year when even a Seth Rogen movie, the Kim Jong-un assassination romp “The Interview,” could start a war (or at least destroy Hollywood execs). Here then are the best, darkest, funniest and, occasionally, just fun movies of the year:
10. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’
The first two-thirds of this Tom Cruise sci-fi spectacular are so good —hey, it’s “Groundhog Day” with aliens, how do you screw that up? — that the so-so third that follows is easy to excuse. More funny/clever than rip-roaring (though that too), this —not interchangeable, interlocking Marvel romps — is what should be clogging multiplexes. Support this —now rechristened as its catchier tagline, “Live Die Repeat” — lest blockbusters stay dull.
The world’s first studio picture about Martin Luther King Jr. could have been another turgid biopic. Instead it’s a thrilling telling of a small but vital chapter in his life. And its portrayal of protests is more than accidentally topical, as peaceful protests concerning race rage in the streets: It’s about the gruntwork of activism and the way it requites sly manipulation, of the media and its minions, to effect real change.
8. ‘Two Days, One Night’
It’s easy to take for granted Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“Kid with a Bike”), who reliably churn out deeply humanist and deeply gripping social dramas that often play like nail-biting thrillers. Their latest is only slightly better than usual, which is to say its consistently heartbreaking, with Marion Cotillard rushing like mad on a fool’s errand to save her crappy job — while wrestling with knowing that would screw her coworkers over.
7. ‘Inherent Vice’
The year’s funniest comedy is, of course, an adaptation of the unadaptable Thomas Pynchon. The daunting novelist’s impenetrable stoner detective tome becomes more than just another “Big Lebowski”: Combining Pynchon with Paul Thomas Anderson, it has the weirdest sense of humor since…well, Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love.”
6. ‘Dear White People’
Important without being pompous, necessary but still a blast, Justin Simien’s temperature taking of modern times as reflected through campus life wasn’t really about stupid white people so much as about the diversity of black life that never, ever gets shown on screens. Of course, it was about stupid white people too.
5. ‘We are the Best!’
Amidst all the misery and tragedy of this year, there was always this: a 100 percent joyous comedy about self-serious Swedish tween punk rock girls. They banged away at songs about sports and corporations with less finesse than Animal the Muppet, capturing the freewheeling stupidity of an age on the cusp of being undone by pesky self-doubt.
4. ‘Listen Up Philip’
There were a lot of sociopath movies this year, from “Whiplash” to “Big Eyes.” Jason Schwartzman’s young, cartoonishly pompous novelist wasn’t even the worst of them, but he was the saddest — an upstart trying to be the kind of literary jerk of a bygone era and succeeding only at turning into a sour loner who drives away the only girl, potentially, who could put up with him (Elisabeth Moss). The film’s final line of narration may make you dive for a stiff drink.
3. ‘National Gallery’
Frederick Wiseman has been cranking out observational documentaries on institutions — “High School,” “Hospital,” “Central Park” — for half a century. This hang at the London museum is more of the same, only more brilliant than usual — a shape-shifter that over its three leisurely hours turns into a look at cosmic insignificance, with art living longer than those who exhibit and protect it. It’s the kind of work that both stands out from the artist’s pack while making you appreciate what you usually take for granted.
2. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’
There’s always a deep, dark melancholy bubbling under Wes Anderson films. The one here is even harder to find than usual; this is his zippiest hunk of confectionery yet. But it’s also set in a Europe about to be wasted by WWII, where the violence that seems cartoonish — severed fingers, Looney Tunes-style plummets off cliffs — will soon step up and then some. It’s so hilarious that its chasmic despair isn’t noticeable till a second viewing.
1. ‘Under the Skin’
Scarlett Johansson was dangerous in 2014. “Lucy” turned her into the invincible master of the universe. She was merely an alien seductress in this hypnotic mood piece, in which she trolled Glasgow, luring bros to a mysterious, inexplicable kind of death. There’s a lot going on here, from its unflattering, detached view of humanity to its playfully empathic view of a psychopath who tries, and fails, to become human. But it’s also a study of ScarJo, celebrity icon: someone outside of the rest of us, lusted after yet unobtainable, who ultimately can never be one of us, even if that may be for the best.
Honorable Mentions one ought not to kick out of bed either:
11. “Stranger by the Lake”
13. “The Immigrant”
15. “Only Lovers Left Alive”
16. “Love is Strange”
19. “Force Majeure”
20. “John Wick”
21. “Mr. Turner”
22. “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?”
24. “The Interview”
25. “Stray Dogs”
26. “The Missing Picture”
27. “Beyond the Lights”
29. “Goodbye to Language”