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It’s tempting, when looking back on a year in film, to search for hidden themes. An over-arching mood or trend that connects seemingly unrelated works into a nice, neat package that says "in 2014, these were the preoccupations, interests and concerns of Western society".

Unfortunately, there is no such theme (at least, not one that is evident so soon after the year’s end). This is reflected in The Essential’s best films of 2014, a varied list that includes veteran filmmakers and first-timers, blockbusters and indies, mainstream American animated comedies and humanist foreign dramas. The only thing that connects these films is, in fact, their diversity. This may make it a challenge to define the cinema of 2014, but it made for a hell of a great year to be a cinephile. Here, as voted by The Essential’s contributors, are the best films of 2014.

The Double

Funny man Richard Ayoade has taken the auteurist route with his two directorial efforts, the first being the Truffaut sunkissed Submarine and the second being The Double, a strange, enigmatic adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel that takes its cues from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

While Ayoade’s films still retain some of the dry humour of his television work, it’s clear that his attempts to transition to a spot behind the camera are imbued with a more serious and artistic tone, something that The Double surely adheres to. With the help of Jesse Eisenberg (and his doppelganger) Ayoade has crafted a surreal rabbit hole of a film, resulting in a journey that you’re probably going to want to take twice. Simon Di Berardino

Nightcrawler

No, Nightcrawler isn’t the all-consuming masterpiece that many may have led you to believe. Sure, its depiction of contemporary journalism ethics is misguided and stale and yeah Rene Russo might not be as strong a presence as she thinks, but focus wholly on the sociopath at the film’s centre and you’ll find a psychological character study worthy of the highest praise. Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as Lou Bloom, the young entrepreneur who attempts to traverse his way through the world of freelance news video, is as mind-blowing as his character’s construction – a solitary figure whose pursuit of infamy is hollow, immoral and downright terrifying. SD

All is Lost

Robert Redford on a boat, for 106 minutes... what more could you want!? All is Lost chronicles, with uncanny naturalism, the attempts made by a resourceful sailor following his boats collision with a shipping container. Stranded in the middle of the ocean with little resources, the camera stares at Robert Redford’s character as he fights circumstance and attempts to grasp the remaining fragments of his morality.

Nearly completely devoid of dialogue and extremely spatially restricted, All is Lost never once falters or loses the audiences attention, maintaining complete suspense and intrigue throughout. J.C. Chandor directs plainly, denying overt sentiment or dramaticism and Redford gives a career-high performance in a film worthy to be nestled among the echelon of maritime features. Ash Beks

Winter Sleep

Despite its microscopic local release, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s poetic study of an emotionally manipulative, morally contemptuous and unsympathetic landowner rewards patient viewers with a revelatory takedown of the constructed reality we call civilised society. Though tightly focused on a small group of characters, Ceylan paints in broad strokes to explore the nuances of human frailty and hypocrisy, with a clarity of vision that would be the envy of any contemporary director. Bradley J. Dixon

Snowpiercer

Faring much better than his Korean counterparts when it comes to the dreaded English-language crossover film, Bong Joon-Ho’s genre-focused Snowpiercer finds the perfect balance between sociopolitical metaphor and all out explosive action set pieces. A claustrophobic affair of the highest order, Snowpiercer’s post-apocalyptic train ride is one that traverses the landscape of political abuse of power and the necessity (or is it futility?) of revolution. Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and the ever-intense Song Kang-Ho give some outstanding performances, but the real winner here is Bong’s ability to simultaneously bludgeon your senses as well as stimulate your mind. SD

Two Days, One Night

For a film that’s essentially about a young woman battling to keep her job under the immense pressure of anxiety and depression, Two Days, One Night is enormously involved and perfectly emotionally calibrated. Not only does the film contain Marion Cottillard’s best performance ever, but it also finds the Belgian-born Dardenne brothers finely tuning their unique brand of socio-humanist parable into a near perfect form. A peek behind the curtain of shame and suffering, Cottillard’s mother of two becomes a conduit for the elation and depression felt by the individual in the grips of the struggle of modernity and the minefield of contemporary capitalism. Bring some tissues. SD

The LEGO Movie

One of two films (with Guardians of the Galaxy, which you will not find on this list) that confirmed Chris Pratt’s status as the box office king of 2014, The LEGO Movie achieves a weird kind of alchemy: essentially a two-hour commercial for one of the most successful toy companies in the world, it nonetheless successfully implores its audience to break free of mindless consumerist culture. With unexpected existential undercurrents and some genuinely laugh-out-loud jokes, The LEGO Movie was one of the year’s biggest surprises. BJD

The Babadook

This little Australian horror got frustratingly lost here. Drowned by a myriad crappy blockbuster releases, franchise reboots and big-company marketing, The Babadook was robbed of greater success in its own country and painfully limited to smaller screens. Regardless, those who saw the film applauded its ingenious terror and marvelous acting, enabling smaller cinemas to continue showing the film to an ecstatic audience for months on end (at the time of writing, The Babadook is still showing at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, some seven months after its initial release).

Director Jennifer Kent manipulates genuine fear with this psychologically draining haunt-fest, aided by a no-holds-barred performance by Essie Davis and a marvelous introductory turn from Noah Wiseman. AB

Blue is the Warmest Colour

Given its intense, three-hour runtime, Blue is the Warmest Colour wastes not a single second. In the film, the relationship between Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux ) is so exquisitely and intimately drawn to include every detail, clearer portraits of a relationship arc have seldom been seen. Every nuance, sideways glance, mistake, fight and passionate moment are intricately weaved into Abdellatif Kechiche’s direction and script, so much so that the audience shall too feel alone upon the film’s completion. The two lead actresses give remarkable performances, embracing the raw emotion needed to push this film into stratospheric legions of high quality. AB

Only Lovers Left Alive

A vampire film that only Jim Jarmusch, the undisputed king of celluloid cool in the modern era, could have cooked up, Only Lovers Left Alive is as romantic, dry and funny as you’d expect it to be. It’s also one of Jarmusch’s best films.

As Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton shuffle around a dilapidated Detroit, they pontificate on great art, music and love as they struggle to deal with a prolonged, never-ending life in a contemporary culture hell-bent on forgetting the past. Jarmusch’s unique take on the vampire myth finds a way to transcend other films of the genre by cutting to the core of what makes the myth’s heart beat: how does one deal with the prospect of eternal life? The end result is about as rewarding and intoxicating as such a prospect can get. SD

Nebraska

Nebraska is the ultimate portrayal of the awkward relationship that often occurs between fathers and their adult sons. The small-town, middle-class dynamics are also perfectly depicted, as if these characters walked straight out of their suburban weatherboard homes and onto the screen. Bob Nelson’s attentive script work is wonderfully framed by Alexander Payne’s stunning black-and-white cinematography that captures the rolling pastoral hills of Middle America with gut-wrenching earnestness. More awe-inspiring is the central performance by Bruce Dern, coaxed out of retirement to play the role of this gruff, stubborn and simple old man. AB

What We Do in the Shadows

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s vampires-in-a-share-house mockumentary works for precisely two reasons: one, thanks to the presence of some of New Zealand’s finest comedic writers and performers it’s unceasingly hilarious, and two (and most importantly), it faithfully abides by all the tropes of the vampire horror genre.

Just as Edgar Wright did with his venerated zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead, Waititi, Clement and company wear their love for vampire fiction on their sleeves, lending an air of genuine affection to their otherwise withering spoof. And just as Shaun of the Dead was actually about the difficulty of maintaining friendships into adulthood, What We Do in the Shadows ultimately uses its unlikely premise to wring painfully funny truths out of the flat-sharing experience in a small New Zealand city. BJD

Her

Set in a not-too-distant future, Her studies one man’s relationship with his portable operating system, a kind of futuristic Siri that can communicate with astonishing humanity and personality. In an age of technological dominance, the premise for Her is wholly believable and perfectly timed: the kind of world where humans forge relationships with robots and machinery seems a likely happening (if not already). Spike Jonze’s utopia (name one other utopian film of the last 40 years…) is so beautifully realistic, so delicately crafted, it is easy to get lost in the slick haze and minimalist fashion of this likely future. AB

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen continued his incredible filmography with 12 Years a Slave, a brutally honest and uncompromising study of pre-Civil War slavery in the United States. Led by a powerful cast combining stellar newcomers and acting royalty, the film rightfully cleaned up at last years Oscar’s (including a Best Picture win). McQueen’s direction subtly contrasts the gorgeous Georgia countryside with the torturous manufactured hell of upper class, right-wing America. AB

Gone Girl

The epicentre around which a thousand thinkpieces revolved, David Fincher’s Gone Girl is both a unique departure and familiar territory for cinema’s great perfectionist. A tale of deception, fraud and heteronormativity, Gone Girl is both a pulpy crime drama and an unravelling of the strong desire society’s collective has for closure and comprehension. Through the dynamic of Ben Affleck’s wounded suburban schlep and Rosamund Pike’s conniving and cornered housewife, Fincher explores the masks we wear day in day out, eventually exposing our yearning for motivation as explanation to be misguided, confused and ultimately dangerous. SD

Inside Llewyn Davis

One of the finest films of 2014 is also one of the finest of the Coen brothers’ entire career. Inside Llewyn Davis lies firmly in the Coens’ wheelhouse, with its tragicomic tone, cryptic narrative structure, cosmological concerns and a wealth of stellar performances and memorable sequences. A film as much about artistic integrity, fate and ghosts of the past as it is about the 1960s New York folk scene, it’s perhaps the most personal tale Joel and Ethan have ever embarked upon. A rich tapestry of cinema, if Inside Llewyn Davis feels definitive it’s because it is. SD

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s American diorama comes to a triumphant crescendo with his latest effort The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it doesn’t even take place in the USA. A jubilant, manic composition of the highest order, Anderson here denounces those who doubted him by showing how glacial his evolution really is. Rather than repeat himself ad nauseum (a criticism that many adopt), Anderson uses The Grand Budapest Hotel to expand his fascination with familial trauma into one of a national, collective trauma and the end result is as tragic as it is hysterical. No ordinary feat for a guy who began by dicking about with Owen Wilson and co. SD

Boyhood

To call Boyhood the most ambitious cinematic experiment of the 21st century, while undoubtedly true, undersells it as a piece of classical American drama. Yes, shooting a film over 12 years and following the development of characters in real time is unprecedented, but more than being a mere gimmick it serves a real purpose: to allow Richard Linklater, one of Hollywood’s last remaining classicists, to portray the experience of growing up as accurately and truthfully as anyone ever has in the medium of cinema. BJD

Under the Skin

Alienation, identity, gender, body image and dysphoria lie at the centre of Jonathan Glazer’s provocative tone poem, in which an extra-terrestrial Scarlett Johansson - the accepted standard unit of measurement for human beauty - struggles for comfort and acceptance in her adopted human skin.

Loosely adapted from Michel Faber’s novel, Glazer’s cinematic interpretation crucially excises much of the sci-fi exposition present in the source, resulting in an altogether more nuanced, beguiling film. Featuring some of the most visually striking photography ever committed to film, Under the Skin feels as alien amongst its contemporaries in Hollywood as ScarJo does in rural Scotland. BJD

The Wolf of Wall Street

Released at the very start of 2014 in Australia, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street managed to secure the top spot for The Essential proving that, despite its early release, it certainly made a lasting impression.

Perhaps it was Leo; that fast-talkin’, multiple-drug-takin’, money-swindlin’ caricature of stock-broker Jordan Belfort remains a high point in the remarkable actor’s career. Similarly, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey and Margot Robbie provide a stellar supporting cast, each giving watermark performances and pushing their individual abilities as actors farther than expected. Orchestrating such a wonderful cast, Martin Scorsese directs the film with the style synonymous with his name, neutrally studying the brazen and bizarre world of Wall Street. AB

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