One doesn't get to use the word "exquisite" enough to describe movies, so it gives me great pleasure to declare that Mr. Turner is exactly that. It is, to begin with, stupefyingly beautiful: not another movie in 2014, not another movie since The Tree of Life, in fact, has made me literally stop breathing because I was so flabbergasted by the sheer gorgeousness of so many individual frames - basically every single establishing shot, of which the film indulges itself in many.

By an incomprehensible margin the best of the year’s biopics of a famous British man, Mr. Turner’s title subject is J.M.W. Turner, revolutionary landscape painter of the first half of the 19th Century. Which explains, to begin with, why the film is so god-damned beautiful: cinematographer Dick Pope has here made it his mission to re-create not just the lighting of the paintings of Turner and his contemporaries, but the texture of them as well. My vocabulary deserts me, but this is not a movie that feels like a movie. There’s a chalky, musty quality to its images that goes deeper than that (it is, I think, a film that could only look the way it does thanks to the latitude of digital cinematography, and so for the first time in my whole love, may I say: thank God for digital cameras). It’s not so much a film that recreates the look of period-appropriate paintings, Barry Lyndon-style (it has the wrong aspect ratio, to begin with), but it finds a cinematic equivalent to the play of light and color and curve. It is maybe the most unprecedented work of cinematography I have seen in 2014.

Which is rewarding in and of itself, but Mr. Turner is not a Dick Pope film, but a Mike Leigh film, and like all Mike Leigh films it is driven by characters, not imagery. Which is even more impressive, given how easy it would be for the imagery to drive this film of all films. Instead, the painterly cinematography serves to make the film an extension of the perspective and mind’s eye of Turner, played by Timothy Spall in an absolutely sublime performance: the best work of his career, the best acting by a man or woman in the English language in 2014, whatever hyperbole you want to throw out there. It can stand up to it.

The film is effectively structureless: picking up during the 1820s, in Turner’s early 50s, when he was already established as a major painter, and following till his death in 1851, with no real plot arc to speak of, and often only the fuzziest connection between scenes that sketch out the general content of Turner’s life without providing some rigid unifying schema. The resulting biopic thus does something that biopics usually do not: it resembles, to a meaningful degree, a human life (within the 2014 movie ecosystem, it’s “this happened, and oh now it’s two years later and this is happening instead” flow of moments that express a man without trying to stuff him into movie character boxes makes it a surprisingly ideal pairing with Boyhood). Freed from generic straitjackets, Spall is able to make a more complex and nuanced character than any real-life figure in a movie in recent memory, all within a very limited range of tricks. Spall’s Turner is piggish, sharp, and unpleasant; he communicates mostly in grunts and snorts, with the actor finding a seemingly limitless variety of ways to go “hunh” and have it mean something vastly different every time. But at the same time, even as the movie forthrightly allows him a host of character flaws (everything from free-for-all rudeness to his bored raping of his housekeeper) and Spall makes not the slightest play for our affections, the film has no difficulty in showing the sensitivity and keyed-up awareness of other people that makes a man a gifted artist. It is, as a whole, one of the most nuanced depictions of a human being that the movies have provided in some time, and Mr. Turner would be essential cinema if it did nothing else.

But it does much else! While Turner is the film's vessel and chief focal point, it wouldn't be a Mike Leigh picture if there wasn't a goodly amount of attention paid to the society around him, and the director's best film since 1999's Topsy-Turvy turns out to be an excellent companion piece for it, addressing the mores of early Victorian England while that film did the same for late Victorian England. And to the question of whether a viewer in 2014 should care about Victorian England at all, I can only adopt a confused look and say that, whatever, I happen to, so there.

The point being, Mr. Turner beautifully captures the pace and ideals and behavior of an era, filling every scene with an outsanding cast made from Leigh regulars and others, all of them creating vivid characters in even the smallest appearances. It's the sort of film wherein, every time somebody other than its protagonist acts or speaks, we are left with the strong impression that they all have full, busy lives, as worthy of exploration as Turner's own, and it's only a matter of keeping things manageable that this particular film has selected only one human being as its subject.

Leigh's way of framing all this humanity is wonderful: they are crammed into Suzie Davies's fussy, organic sets in compositions fraught with meaning, whether to reveal social standing, or evoke states of calm, loneliness, busy panic, and everything else. The lessons of fine art have been utilised well in the construction of the film's images: they are psychologically acute on top of being beautiful. And thus we arrive at the construction of a living, functioning world which we are permitted to view in sliced-out moments, some of them impossibly minor (Turner's father, played by Paul Jesson, buying paint supplies), some of them massive (an exhibit featuring all of the important painters in England at the time, a lengthy chain of events that I suppose qualifies as the film's signature sequence), all of them equally captivating and important feeling.

By focusing on individual incidents and beats rather than anything like an overarching plot, Mr. Turner's depiction of life has a chance to feel fuller and more authentic than anything else like it in years. Without any causal linkages, adjacent scenes comment on each other to present a version of the title character who can be likable and then infuriating in the blink of an eye, who experiences sad moments, triumphant moments, moments when he amuses us and moments when he infuriates us, all in a flow that feels natural and rhythmic even though, if one tried to work out how each scene feeds into the next, it would probably feel rather arbitrary. Leigh's directorial naturalism sells it; the visual splendour gives it a certain richness and cinematic brightness that adds just enough pageantry to it that it can't be pegged as a generic exercise in living history; and Spall serves as the immovable bedrock of this sprawling study of life at a certain time and place, while also being its most fascinating single element. I can't pretend that it's perfect - for one thing, it repeats itself narratively and thematically, especially as it gets closer to the end and focuses with increasing closeness on Turner's relationship to the twice-widowed Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey, the standout among the great supporting cast) - but it's as close as it needs to be, and it's certainly the highlight of the 2014 year-end prestige glut.