Saturday, February 7, 2015

My Top 20 (Actually, 21) Films of 2014

I’m late with this. I’m always late with this. In part it’s because, not having to worry about deadlines, I can be late with it. (None of my outlets ever seem to want a Top 10 list from me, for some reason.) In part it’s because I don’t usually think of my movie year as being finalized until I’ve submitted my poll in Mike D’Angelo’s Skandies poll, which usually closes in February and whose results are being rolled out as we speak, over here. Anyway, I won’t clear my throat so much, other than to ask: When the hell did I become such a big sci-fi nerd?

20. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
This film has proven to be more divisive than expected, but I loved how its bold, possibly ridiculous high-wire stylistic act matches the bold, probably ridiculous high-wire theatrical act at its center. The fact that the play Riggan Thompson is working on seems to be a turd is part of what makes the film so wonderfully agitating and alive to me. That’s also why I still firmly believe that the film basically collapses in its very final scenes, as it starts wrapping things up and answering questions best left open-ended -- it feels like a betrayal of its very unconventionality. But still. Good job, González Iñárritu. You win this round.

19. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
A beautifully acted, energetically directed chamber piece that’s been mistaken for an endorsement of dodgy, abusive teaching tactics. Maybe it's that, but it's also a tragedy. And it can be both at once -- that is the beauty and majesty of art. Here's David Edelstein, putting it better than I ever could: "Whiplash will spark debate—some of it angry—over whether, in the end, Chazelle is vindicating Fletcher’s methods, suggesting that only a harsh taskmaster can push Andrew to the next level. I don’t think he’s that conclusive. But he’s certainly leaving the question open. When you read Jan Swafford’s exhaustive new Beethoven biography or listen to world-class musicians or Olympic athletes talk about their driving parents and lack of a “real” childhood, you see how pushing kids to the brink can in some cases pay off. It can also—more often—be inhuman, soul-killing, even criminal; it can screw people up for life...A good dramatist doesn’t need to reconcile these two sides, only bring them to life."

18. Big Eyes (Tim Burton)
After years in the blockbuster wilderness, Tim Burton pulls back and delivers one of the most human films of his career – as well as the closest thing he’s come to a genuine horror movie. Having seen it several times now, I’m mesmerized by its playful mixing of genres, the way it goes from Sirkian melodrama to Bava-esque thriller to Grimm fairy tale to zany legal comedy. And it’s all anchored by a powerfully quiet Amy Adams performance that does wonders with mere glances and body language. She achieves that wonderful, impossible thing in cinema -- showing thought on screen. Watch her interactions with Christoph Waltz. He’s like a crocodile, his jaw jutting out as if it’s about to open up and consume her, while we can sense her mind racing, figuring out what to do with the surreal tragicomedy her life has become.

17. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
Somewhat hilariously, when I reviewed Coherence, I called it he best science-fiction film I’d seen in years, a statement which was eventually belied by several other sci-fi films I saw this summer. That, however, takes away nothing from this film’s greatness. It’s wonderful, and as a feat of imaginative, low-budget mind-fuckery, it’s absolutely revelatory. I thought Mike D'Angelo put it well: "Shot over five nights in a single location, and almost entirely improvised, Coherence is no-budget filmmaking at its most delectably inventive. Byrkit’s résumé includes a lot of work in the art department on Gore Verbinski’s films, plus a story credit and voice work on Rango, but there’s no trace of Hollywood in this lean, cerebral puzzler, which trusts viewers to pay close attention to offhand lines and briefly glimpsed objects to piece together what’s happening.”

16. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)
Tsai returns, bolder and stranger than ever. From my review: “I counted fewer than 80 shots in all of Stray Dogs, each gorgeous and immersive and bewildering in its own way. The power of the director’s cinema lies in its aural and tactile quality — and that’s where we might find a hint of a meaning. If I had to find one word to describe Stray Dogs, it would be cavernous. There is no warmth to be found anywhere in the film. Even the one nice house we see is cold and vast. The impoverished characters are often at the mercy of the elements – the driving rain that pounds their ramshackle bedroom, or the howling wind that blasts Dad at work on that Taipei street, or the huge, chilling blackness of night.”

15. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez)
A couple of months ago, I wrote about the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab and about how they’re revolutionizing documentaries and cinema in general; earlier, I reviewed Manakamana, here. While it’s maybe not as mind-warpingly intense as Leviathan, this spellbinding film – built out of locked-down long-takes which, by virtue of the fact that they’re fixed inside a cable car, work the tension between movement and stasis -- is a good example of why. In a just world, this would play in a loop at the Ziegfeld or on an IMAX screen, where you could wander and vanish into its visual-aural landscape.

14. Me and You (Bernardo Bertolucci)
This is possibly the first Bertolucci film in decades to not sit right up at the top of my list. But that’s not a knock. I still love this delicate movie, and I love it a little more each time I see it. From my review: “For all the limitations of its setting and palette, this is a gorgeous, visually exciting movie…His camera still follows the characters with sinewy long takes, letting different sources of light and dark play across these faces, matching the wild and strange emotions beginning to stir within…The director is kind here, though. He lets the anxiety live on in his characters, but by the end of the film, he still finds a way to leave them on a fleeting, stolen smile. There’s a wisdom here, and it’s reflected in the glancing, gentle nature of this film. One can’t help but wonder if, now closer to the end than to the beginning, but also happy just to be directing again, Bertolucci has chosen to give us a beautiful fragment in time, a glimpse of a life just beginning to be lived. Me and You doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but it feels like the work of a contented man.” (To read my longer profile of Bertolucci from this year, go here.)

13. John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch)
I expect to write more about this movie soon, but here’s what I said about it at the time of its release: “Filmmakers have been aestheticizing violence for as long as movies have been around, and the idea of yet another action flick with hot music and cool images (however hot the music, however cool the images) may not strike many as cause for celebration. But John Wick commits to its defiant unreality, giving us a fantastical underworld of ritual, mythic figures and color-coded spaces… [It’s] a violent, violent, violent film, but its artful splatter is miles away from the brutality of Taken or the gleeful gore of The Equalizer. It’s a beautiful coffee-table action movie.”

12. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
In the annals of movie stardom, Tom Cruise holds a special place. He has been one of our biggest mega-stars for decades, but he’s also managed a surprising amount of diversity during that time. He doesn’t have much range, but he uses what range he does have in interesting ways. As William Cage, a hapless soldier who keeps coming back from the dead to relive a day until he can become better at it, Cruise has found an ideal metaphor for his persistence. He’s the guy who’s driven. He’s the guy who won’t take no for an answer. He never looks back. He takes what he’s learned and built, and he keeps moving forward. If William Cage has to keep waking up and trying to figure out how to save the world given his particular predicament, Tom Cruise has to approach every part trying to figure out how to do it while, essentially, still being Tom Cruise. (Manohla Dargis's review is also very much worth your time, as it contains this excellent insight: "Mr. Liman brings Mr. Cruise’s smile out of semiretirement and also gives him the kind of physical challenges at which he so brilliantly excels. Mr. Cruise’s great talent has always been body-based; he doesn’t put across complex emotional shadings, tunneling so deep into a character’s psychology that it can feel like a transmogrification. Much like old-school, pre-Method movie stars, he takes possession of his characters from the outside in, expressing their qualities and kinks through his extraordinarily controlled physicality.")

11. Dear White People (Justin Simien)
I think A.O. Scott put it best: "Mr. Simien serves harsh medicine with remarkable charm and good humor. He is an incisive writer and a disciplined and decorous filmmaker, framing and cutting his scenes with clean, almost classical economy. Someone says of Sam, an aspiring filmmaker, that she secretly likes Ingmar Bergman more than Spike Lee. Mr. Lee’s School Daze is a clear reference point here, and while Bergman is not an obvious influence, it’s possible to catch echoes of Whit Stillman, Claude Chabrol and even Pedro Almodóvar in Mr. Simien’s feel for the nuances and perversities of social life." (You can read my review, here,)

10. Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund)

9. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson has been futzing around with his name so much he might as well just replace the “Paul” with “Perplexing,” given the last few films he’s made. I loved Inherent Vice the moment I saw it, and I’ve revisited it a couple of times. But today, I don’t know which I love more: The experience of actually watching Inherent Vice and being in that world, or the mildly intoxicated feeling I get some time after seeing the movie. And for all the film’s adherence to its source material (it’s almost ludicrously faithful to Thomas Pynchon’s wonderful novel), that reflective quality is what’s so unique and special about it. Anderson takes Pynchon’s ornate, heavily-engineered (and, might I add, very male) text and turns it into something elegiac, the words spoken by Joanna Newsom as a half-remembered lament for something that may not have ever existed – whether that’s a country, an era, a relationship, or just a plot point. (You can find more of my thoughts on this film interspersed throughout this ranked list of the best performances in Anderson's films.)

8. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
"I wanted to make an exciting movie about the class struggle."

7. The Immigrant (James Gray)
From my profile of James Gray: “[James] Gray makes a type of movie that barely exists anymore. His films are serious, literate, medium-budget dramas — a vanishing middle ground in an industry increasingly polarized between ginormous tentpoles and micro-budget indies. Many filmmakers in that range have migrated to TV, but that’s not where Gray’s passion lies. His films yearn for the big screen; alongside their carefully constructed stories, they also have old-school stylistic virtues like lush production design (on a budget), expressive camerawork, and intimate close-ups that demand to be seen on a 30-foot screen.”

6. The LEGO Movie (Chris Miller and Phil Lord)
If you were reading me in early 2014, you may have noticed that I called The LEGO Movie not only a high-water mark for pop-culture referentiality, but also a "Bergmanesque glipse into the mind of God" as well as a pseudo-communist rebuke to our culture's fantasies of exceptionalism, while also being an indulgence of same. It's not that I don't stand by all those things, but what I was really trying to say was: This movie is funny as shit and I loved it and I don't want to ever stop watching it ever.

5. We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson)
From my interview with Moodysson: “My intention behind the film is very much about joy, and how there are always small possibilities of joy and hope and happiness. And I think it was also a film that came out of … well, sometimes there are things that happen to you in life, but you can’t talk about them because it’s someone else’s experience. But there was a time when someone I knew a little bit had had a terrible experience. It was a friend of one of my children, and I just thought, Life is so difficult for young people. So in a strange way, the idea for the film is borne a little bit out of frustration and anger, and feeling that I had to do something that was uplifting. It’s weird, because some of the darker things I’ve written have been made during really happy circumstances, and the opposite.”

4. Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Since so much of the debate around this film has wound up focusing on its Oscar travails, the best thing I can do here is point you to my pal Glenn Kenny's excellent post, appropriately titled "Maybe Selma is too smart to be an Oscar movie anyway": "When I saw Ava DuVernay’s Selma last December, I, like many other critics, was terrifically taken with it. And I was also a little surprised. I was not surprised that it was good—DuVernay’s 2012 Middle of Nowhere demonstrated she had both considerable talent and considerable perspective—but at the way it was good. DuVernay stuck to her metaphorical guns with respect to perspective and declined to deliver a Great Man biopic. Instead she wove a drama of considerable intelligence, empathy, and analytical chops. She made a film sufficiently unconventional so as to be called radical, a film whose style—or perhaps the better word for what I mean is 'mode'—I thought, owed more to Steven Soderbergh’s Che than it did to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi." (Meanwhile, you can read my review here.)

3. Two Days, One Night
From my review: “Two Days, One Night isn't nearly as touched by violence or desperation as the Dardennes' previous films, but it has a beautifully suspenseful premise. It is, effectively, a ticking-clock thriller, only in this case our hero isn't trying to track down a killer or stop a bomb. And while the threat of violence isn't entirely absent — at one point, two co-workers briefly come to blows — the filmmakers still manage to find remarkable urgency and tension as Sandra goes from co-worker to co-worker… The Dardennes are known for the immediacy of their camera — close by, hand-held, often following characters behind their heads. But they also manage to find real suspense and urgency in Sandra's otherwise static exchanges with her co-workers, placing obstacles and creating distinct visual fields to underline the distance and alienation between these characters… We're with Sandra throughout Two Days, One Night, but each exchange feels like another window being opened into the world.”

2. Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood)
I gushed about this film in my review, and then I gushed about it some more when I interviewed Gina Prince-Bythewood. But having seen it a few more times over the past few months, I feel like there’s something I missed initially: How sad it is. I mean, it’s a drama, and a very patient one at that. But it’s imbued with a deep sense of melancholy from its very first frames. The whole movie is about living lives others have planned for you, and, despite its colorful depiction of the hip-hop world and its swooning romance, it manages to hold the real explosion of feeling --- that final fairy-tale burst of joy – right up to the end. You walk away from the movie dancing, even though so much of it is grounded in the characters’ low-boil anguish. It’s fucking wonderful. (Also, you should read Odie Henderson's review of the film, which contains this wonderful, illuminating bit: "Prince-Bythewood specializes in characters who are as complex as those residing in literature. The people she writes have lives that exist separately from their romantic and societal entanglements. The audience tags along with each of her creations down their separate pathways, so when a character reacts to a certain situation, we know why.")

1. A TIE:  Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) and Actress (Robert Greene)
At first glance, you couldn’t think of two movies that are more different. One is a hugely-hyped, hugely-expensive, hugely-huge, immaculately constructed and highly structured sci-fi epic about humankind’s future in distant galaxies. The other is a teeny-tiny handmade documentary (teenier and tinier and more handmade than most) about a woman attempting to re-launch an acting career amid the messiness of life – a movie that seems to embody that very messiness, whose textures evoke the shape-shifting, fragile nature of modern domesticity. And yet, both movies, for all their many other pleasures, hit me in the same spot. Both movies, on some level, are about the choices parents make, are about the balance (or, usually, imbalance) between self-actualization and self-sacrifice, and about how, whether you like it or not, sometimes the sacrifice is the actualization. Greene’s film is called Actress; it could easily also be called Mother. Nolan’s film is called Interstellar, but it could easily be called Astronaut, or Father. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’m hoping that somewhere out there is a lucky soul who saw these two movies on opening day – November 7, 2014, for both, interestingly – who has some inkling of what I’m getting at.

Anyway, this is from my essay on Interstellar:

“All of Interstellar’s talk of black holes and wormholes; all those massive machines spinning and connecting across the vast IMAX chasms of space; McConaughey riding the universe’s biggest wave; that stentorian score, with its ticking clocks doing constant battle against funereal organ chords…It’s all been leading to this moment – a man replaying the moment when he broke his daughter’s heart. And now, by essentially reliving his separation from Murph over and over again, Coop has the chance to correct it. No, he can’t change the past. He can’t keep himself from leaving. But he can want to stay.”

And this, from my review of Actress:

“At one point, Burre stands in her children’s room, organizing the fake money in their fake cash register, moving the fake shopping cart. Elsewhere, she talks of deciding to play house with Tim. What is an actor or actress but a more extreme version of ourselves, crystalizing the make-believe at the heart of how we all confront the real world? That question, of course, is not just at the heart of this movie; it’s at the heart of every movie. It’s the very mystery of cinema itself, and few films embody it better than Actress.”


  1. Have to ask: You don't think Boyhood is one of the 20 best films of the year?

  2. The very fact that interstellar is on your list, let alone at the top tells me you have terrible taste in film.

  3. Interstellar has leaden pacing, a dull cast, the worst "character" in ages (I won't spoil it, but his name may have the initials MD); a walking plot device to start the 'big' action sequence. SPOILER: Nolan had 40 minutes to let his imagination run wild at the end, inside the black hole. Instead? He remade Honey, We Shrunk the Kids. His realism fetish at its worst, kinda like the car chases in Inception when he also could have gone wild. It being a dream and all. Go back to smaller films, Nolan, blockbusters don't fit you very well.

  4. The list is called "My" 20 movies of 2014, so if Interstellar is there, and Boyhood I not, It's because it's a personal list about personal tastes

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