16. Only Lovers Left Alive
For a generation infused with generic, melodramatic vampirism plotlines, Only Lovers Left Alive stands apart with its captivating intellectuality, razor-sharp wit, and ingenious self-satire in regards to vampire mythology. It is darkly brooding, as any vampire film should be, but with intelligence, heart, and stunningly macabre cinematography.
Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, playing century-old lovers named Adam and Eve, embody the vampiric nature flawlessly, telling a tale of the secrecy and survival of the vampire race. Unlike other vampires, Adam and Eve refuse to feed off humans out of fear of drinking contaminated blood that has been affected by environmental decline, therefore retrieving only clean blood from local suppliers or blood banks.
Adam is a lonely, secluded vampire who was once a great influence on the music industry, though has since found solace in solidarity and collecting vintage guitars. He is soon reunited with Eve, his long-time lover, who brings life and joy back into his life as they explore the city and dance to old records.
Their brief moment of happiness and tranquility, however, is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Eve’s younger sister, Ava, who leaves a trail of havoc and ruin in her wake, seemingly without regard for her consequences. The trio embodies an entirely different breed of vampirism than what we have become accustomed to in modern cinema, making Only Lovers Left Alive a pleasant change from the norm while never losing touch with its morbidity.
15. Love is Strange
Films like Love is Strange prove that simple storytelling still has the ability to be deeply meaningful and impactful when coupled with strong casting and a beautifully written script.
Love is Strange follows Ben and George, a gay couple four decades into their relationship. The two are harmonious and witty in their exchanges, giving off the feel of a couple that known each other all too well and deeply care for one another. The film begins on the morning of Ben and George’s wedding, with the couple starting off their morning routine followed by a graceful, serene wedding that is long overdue for the couple.
However, as heartfelt as Love is Strange manages to be, it is equally as invested in telling a tale about the bigotry that still occurs in the United States. George is fired from his job as a choir director at a Catholic church due to his homosexuality, marked by his officially outing at the wedding. Ben is an artist, struggling to make ends meet, and with both out of a job, they are no longer able to afford their mortgage.
The couple is eventually driven to live separately, with any friends or family members that will take them in. Their separate experiences are humorous, unsettling, and most of all, poignantly compelling.
Love is Strange is a patient film that takes its time developing its characters, but it never fails to evoke an emotional response. It is, ultimately, an intimate and transcendentally passionate film.
14. Starred Up
Filled with violence, grit, and palpable tension, Starred Up is a difficult yet wholly rewarding watch about the horrors of prison life and the psychological torment it inflicts on inmates.
The film follows Eric, a volatile and unpredictable 19-year-old who is admitted into an adult prison where he must endure and defend himself against older, hardened convicts. Jack O’Connell provides a powerfully impactful performance as Eric, whose only aid comes in the form of a group therapist named Oliver, though Eric’s therapy sessions seem to result in only more anger and frustration.
It is not long before Eric discovers he is residing in the same prison as his estranged father, Neville, whose presence is both a blessing and a curse in the prison setting. Both Oliver and Neville attempt to help and protect Eric inside the prison, though it is nearly impossible in such a viciously unrelenting environment. Gangs and corruption are at every corner as Eric attempts to fend for himself, portraying the juxtaposition of his youth with the savage nature of prison life.
Starred Up is a brutally intense film and a difficult one to sit through, but its emotional and serious nature make it a rewarding and highly compelling experience.
2014 was truly a year of phenomenal performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, considering he appears twice on this list as a film’s leading actor.
Enemy is an artistically chilling tale in which Gyllenhaal plays two different characters that are physically identical yet highly dissimilar in their personalities and mannerisms. We are first introduced to Adam, a college professor that is quiet and solitary. Upon the recommendation of a colleague, Adam rents a film named “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way.”
As he watches the film, Adam unexpectedly notices a bellhop in the film with which he shares an uncanny resemblance. He is immediately intrigued and looks for the actor’s name in the credits: Daniel St. Claire, which he discovers is the stage name for one Anthony Claire. Adam rents other films starring Anthony and becomes aware that this man is his physical doppelgänger—the two men look precisely alike. His interest in Anthony extends to stalking him, visiting him at his office, and eventually calling him.
When the two eventually meet, they discover they truly are physically identical to one another, right down to their scars. However, Adam is much more reserved and inquisitive, whereas Anthony is sexual and rudely outspoken.
The film progresses in a gorgeously surreal and psychologically thrilling manner, filled with symbolic elements through colorization, camera styles, imagery, and even creatures. Every shot in Enemy has metaphorical meaning, and above all, it raises a highly sophisticated statement on identity, society, and existential turmoil. It is artistically and intelligently layered, and the symbolic vitality of the film at its conclusion demands to be contemplated long after the film is over.
12. The Double
Enemy wasn’t the only film of 2014 to feature physical doppelgängers with entirely different temperaments. Jesse Eisenberg provides a stunning portrayal of two characters that share every single physicality in The Double, though the two are emotionally and socially at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The Double tells the tale of Simon James, a young man who has worked at the same company for over 7 years yet goes unnoticed by everyone around him, much to his discontent. Simon is quiet and gives off an awkward gawkiness, particularly when attempting to make conversation with his crush, Hannah.
However, Simon’s sullen existential crisis hardly has time to irritate him as he’s thrown into an almost supernatural whiplash. At his workplace, a new man named James Simon—a reversal of his own name—is hired and revered by the other employees, living off high praise at work during the day and being a seductive womanizer during the night.
We immediately know not all is as it seems as we’re introduced to James Simon, largely due to the fact that he looks identical to Simon James. As a friendship flourishes between the two, it becomes evident that James is a cunning and manipulative individual, interested only in his own success and self-worth as he uses Simon to his liking.
The Double builds with sinister suspense, yet never loses touch with its satirical undertones and darkly gothic atmosphere. The film is both riotous and alluring, rendering a moodily artistic feel in an imaginative yet subtle dystopian future.
11. The Way He Looks
In what is perhaps one of the most sentimental coming-of-age films of the year, The Way He Looks is an artfully told Brazilian film that follows Leonardo, a blind boy dealing with the everyday struggles of life due to his disability. He is teased and ridiculed by others in his high school on a daily basis, and his best friend, Giovana, stands by his side every step of the way—physically and metaphorically.
Yet, Leonardo yearns for independence. He longs to discover the world, and moreover, discover himself. His life slowly begins to change as he befriends a new student, Gabriel. The two instantly click and become extremely close friends, sparking jealously from Giovana and afflicted feeling from Leonardo as he attempts to make sense of his thoughts, experiences, and sexuality.
The Way He Looks is a subtle yet magnificent tale about friendship, love, and hardship, and it is one that is flawlessly presented with sentimental and humanistic meaning.
10. The Babadook
The Babadook is arguably one of the most cerebral and effective horror films ever created, and it is a film that lingers with you long after it is over.
The film has received much acclaim for its atmospheric and macabre storytelling, following a mother and her son after they discover what appears to be a children’s book named Mister Babadook. It becomes clear after reading only a few pages that this is far from a normal bedtime story, and the child becomes immediately traumatized by the idea of Mister Babadook coming to haunt him. The film builds slowly but surely in intensity, outlining the fine line between paranoia and psychosis.
The Babadook is not only hauntingly suspenseful and nerve-wracking, but functions also as an analysis on the relationship between a single mother and her son, particularly in terms of the psychological effects of a traumatic loss. It is dark, terrifying, and most of all, an important film when it comes to understanding love, loss, and all the calamities that endure between the juxtaposition of the two.
9. The Guest
Adam Wingard’s development as a campy horror director has been absorbingly fascinating, from V/H/S to You’re Next to his newest piece of gorily fluorescent euphoria, The Guest.
This film is cold, hard, gritty proof that the man knows exactly what he is doing and builds intensity with perfect timeliness. Filled with alluringly smooth 80s music and an incredibly original storyline that escalates with massive unpredictability, The Guest flourishes as a uniquely constructed thriller.
It is darkly intense and comical, as expected from Wingard’s work, but the film’s real strength is its spectacular cinematography, particularly towards the end of the film. Its neon-lights and gore-infused ambiance is a feast on the eyes, and Dan Stevens excels in his role as David with intricacy, mystery, and of course, seductiveness.
Giving away any plot details of the film would feel almost like desecration, which is why The Guest is a film that must be experienced for one’s own enjoyment, and oh, how enjoyable it is.