From Anatolia to Zubrowka, the great motion pictures of 2014 took you places. They leapt into the past, winding their way through 19th-century art galleries and 20th-century brothels, and speculated about the future, piloting audiences into wormholes and beyond. There were imaginary settings, like the crooked California community of Gordita Beach, and ones that just looked imaginary, as glimpsed through the inhuman eyes of an extraterrestrial tourist. Finding a common link among the 20 wildly different movies singled out below may seem like an exercise in futility, but most if not all of them operated like passports to somewhere else, even if that somewhere else was just a single suburban house or a tiny Berlin apartment. Yet for all the far-flung locations represented on our list—including the mundane residential backdrops of our top choice, the only movie to appear on every one of the six contributors’ ballots—a unilateral piece of travel advice emerges: There was no better place to be this past year than at the movies.
Winner of this year’s Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep seems, at first blush, like a daunting viewing challenge—a 196-minute Turkish drama that’s composed almost entirely of conversational scenes. And yet the film is anything but an arduous experience, providing a richness of interpersonal exchange through the story of a former-actor-turned-hotel-proprietor (Haluk Bilginer) dealing with an unhappy younger wife (Melisa Sozen), a sour single sister (Demet Akbag), and a family in financial debt to him. In scene after thoughtfully composed scene, Ceylan immerses himself in the minute problems of his protagonist. Those issues all eventually prove to be symptomatic of his much larger failing to understand himself, just as they reveal Winter Sleep to be not just the story of a single individual, but a more universal study of the discrepancy between how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others. Bolstered by stunning visuals that constantly express the characters’ shifting relations to one another, it’s a film that plumbs small-scale drama to epic effect. [Nick Schager]
What does it mean to be truly free? Pascale Ferran’s intoxicating diptych Bird People asks that question by contrasting the experiences of an American businessman (Josh Charles) staying at an airport hotel in Paris and the young maid (Anaïs Demoustier) who cleans his room. In the film’s first half, Charles’ Gary wakes up to a panic attack and abruptly decides to quit his job, end his marriage, and remain in Paris indefinitely. In the second half, Demoustier’s Audrey unexpectedly has something very unusual happen to her. (To say more would be to ruin the giddy surprise.) Both are tales of liberation, but they’re in dramatically different registers. Gary’s withdrawal from his entire life has severe real-world repercussions, with which he has to deal at length (hunker down for his all-night Skype fight with his wife), and is arguably rooted largely in selfishness. Audrey’s bizarre journey of discovery, on the other hand, while exhilarating, is also tinged with danger, and opens her eyes to aspects of her surroundings she’s never noticed before. Few filmmakers would think to combine the mundane and the whimsical in quite this way, and fewer still could pull it off so beguilingly. [Mike D’Angelo]
Christopher Nolan may be a fanboy’s idea of genius cool, but one of the most endearing through-lines of his work is actually a nerdy squareness on par with TARS, the monolithic robot that serves as intermittent comic relief in Interstellar. Nolan’s ambitious sci-fi adventure features some of his trippiest and most beautiful imagery, surrounded by wordy explanations of science, all in service of a story about a man who misses his kids, emotionally and literally. Matthew McConaughey gives one of his best movie-star performances as that man, who leaves his family to pilot a mission to find planets that may be hospitable to human life following a devastating food shortage on Earth. He winds up traveling across not just space but time and dimension, with the director’s characteristic urgency, sincerity, and big-canvas imagery. 2001 is an obvious visual influence, but Nolan, often and incorrectly pegged as a Kubrick heir, reaches for the stars in a more literal-minded but also more humanity-friendly way. His blockbuster epic feels simultaneously huge (especially on a proper Imax screen) and intimate—an appropriate combination for the vastness and loneliness of space. [Jesse Hassenger]