While our recent trip to Sundance afforded us a preview of some of 2015′s best films, it’s back to that treacherous arena that is the early months of the year. While a few major studio releases are vaguely on our radar (Jupiter Ascending, which is far from the disaster some predicted) and others have us running away from the theater (Fifty Shades of Grey), there are promising options, as well as a bevy of notable independent dramas and comedies. Check out the ten we’re most excited about below, many of which will be available on VOD.
Matinees to See: 1971 (2/6), Jupiter Ascending (2/6), The Last 5 Years (2/13), Gett (2/13), Queen & Country (2/18), Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (2/20), All the Wilderness (2/20), Wild Canaries (2/25), Everly (2/27), and Focus (2/27)
10. Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn; Feb. 13th)
Synopsis: A veteran secret agent takes a young upstart under his wing.
Why You Should See It: Although I’ve often found Matthew Vaughn‘s films to be entertaining but ultimately forgettable, his latest, Kingsman: The Secret Service, looks to be one of his more well-received features. A send-up of the spy genre, it also seems like the closest we’ll get to his take on Bond, specifically with Colin Firth in the lead role. While the trailers have yet to impress, we can hope that the buzz is to be believed.
9. Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes; Feb. 6th)
Synopsis: From first rehearsal to world premiere, Ballet 422 takes us backstage at New York City Ballet as emerging choreographer Justin Peck crafts a new work.
Why You Should See It: A quick glance at films such as Afterschool, Tiny Furniture, and Martha Marcy May Marlene will reveal a distinct visual style from cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. While his work has likely been most-seen in HBO’s Girls, he’ll be hitting nationwide theaters next summer, having shot Judd Apatow‘s next comedy, Trainwreck. Before that project, he helmed a new documentary, Ballet 422, which arrives this week — and we’ve already named it one of our favorites of the year.
8. The Salvation (Kristian Levring; Feb. 27th)
Synopsis: In 1870s America, a peaceful American settler kills his family’s murderer which unleashes the fury of a notorious gang leader. His cowardly fellow townspeople then betray him, forcing him to hunt down the outlaws alone.
Why You Should See It: Following up his Best Actor win at Cannes for The Hunt, Mads Mikkelsen returned to the festival in a far different genre. The western The Salvation, also starring Eva Green and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, appears to be a handsomely crafted period piece. As we said in our review, “Pulpy, violent, exploitative and trashy, The Salvation harkens back to the spaghetti Western era before the genre became introspective with the likes of Unforgiven or No Country For Old Men.”
7. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (Spike Lee; Feb. 13th)
Synopsis: Dr. Hess Green becomes cursed by a mysterious ancient African artifact and is overwhelmed with a newfound thirst for blood…
Why You Should See It: We found Spike Lee‘s latest, already available on VOD, to be one of his best in years. Our review claims it’s his “freest-feeling endeavor in a spell, the full-forced reminder that, after years divided by safe hits (Inside Man and, yes, Oldboy) and personal duds (Miracle at St. Anna, the aforementioned Red Hook Summer), he’s yet to lose sight of how both the personal and the lively might flow together. Weighed with regard to a place amongst the Lee canon, it stands as a work equally divided by divergences and conformities nevertheless united, forcefully, by a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool insanity.”
6. My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Liv Corfixen; Feb. 27th)
Synopsis: Portrait of filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn during the filming and release of Only God Forgives.
Why You Should See It: While we imagine Nicolas Winding Refn‘s next feature will be out by next year, 2015 brings us a look inside one of the man’s most divisive films, Only God Forgives, as captured by his wife, Liv Corfixen. We said in our review that the documentary “gives us intimate, day-by-day access to their life together during the six-month trip to Thailand with their two children and the way Refn tries to blend being an artist and having a family. Challenging and engaging, it’s a documentary that is perhaps more interesting and deep than the film it is about.”
2014 has been an unusual year for movies, but nevertheless a strong one. For me, it started off in Sundance with a plethora of great films that lingered long after the festival had passed. While I was unable to attend Cannes this year, where many cinematic gems are usually unearthed, I did attend my first Fantastic Fest, which was one of the most enjoyable festival experiences I’ve ever participated in. Though there are several movies on my list of shame that I wish I had gotten around to before finalizing things (Whiplash; Selma; Two Days, One Night) I’m cinematically satisfied with how the year panned out.
10. The Raid 2 / John Wick (Gareth Evans / Chad Stahelski and David Leitch)
2014 started off with one of the craziest action movies of the year and finished with one of the more stylish. While Gareth Evans‘ follow-up to his seminal Indonesian hit The Raid: Redemption may at first seem like an overly long and indulgent sequel, its bonkers action set pieces create a true visceral assault on the senses in the best way possible. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Pencak Silat is one of the most hypnotically beautiful styles of fight choreography to watch, forgiving some of the The Raid 2: Berendal‘s more wacky plot lines. John Wick, on the other hand, opts out of the many tired hired-killer tropes and dives straight into creating a vibrant world of interesting characters, comic-book lore and one of the coolest ways to watch Keanu Reeves kill people: gun judo. If you’re going to enjoy a bit of overkill from time to time, you owe it to yourself to give both these explosive films a chance.
9. Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier)
It may not be as edgy as the trailers and posters would lead you to believe, but that doesn’t make Nymphomaniac any less provocative. The uneven nature of the film takes some time getting used to, but once you’ve relinquished yourself to becoming a voyeur into Joe and Seligman’s intellectual dialogue on archaic metaphors for human sexuality, the film becomes oddly rapturous. It’s also a subversive piece on Lars Von Trier’s own canon, often poking fun at his earlier thematic plights and thus making it something of delight for those who fetishize the Danish director’s naughty tendencies.
8. Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes)
The inception and design that goes into creating any artistic work is a marvel to witness. It is this purity of concept that propels director and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipess’ captivating documentary about a young prodigy ballet dancer, Justin Peck. The film is as much about documenting the creative process as documenting the intricacies of ballet. With its brisk pace and unique style, Ballet 422 is a cinematic delight that encapsulates the passion of two inspired artists: the one in front of the camera and the one behind it.
7. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Nuri Burge Celyan has cemented himself as one of the most intellectually stimulating filmmakers of recent years with his austere style that has drawn comparisons to legendary auteurs of cinema — Tarkovsky, Bergman and Rohmer, to name a few. This year he earned the coveted Palme d’Or prize with Winter Sleep, a solemn drama about an existentialist hotel owner in the Turkish countryside. While some may be turned off by the slow pace, long running time, and prosaic nature of the conversations, the performances and direction are all of the highest caliber and merit attentive viewing in order to absorb all the exquisite details this remarkable film has to offer.
6. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
There is a distinctly Americana fascination and connection between director Bennett Miller’s Capote, Moneyball, and Foxcatcher. Centered on a struggling former Olympic wrestler and his unlikely relationship with a bizarre billionaire, the film is less about the actual details of what happened in this real-life tragedy and more about the insidious nature that is derived from excessive wealth and power. The film features a truly powerhouse trio of performances from Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo, and Channing Tatum. Eerily paced and unnerving at every turn, the fastidious study of these characters is both enveloping and thought-provoking.
I’m happy to report that 2014 was a year brimming with standout blockbusters, worthy festival favorites, and surprising sleeper hits. I was most struck by the variety of great films representing a wide swath of genres and tastes. I enjoyed the life-affirming Swedish import We Are the Best! as much as the hyper-violent, stripped-down action thriller John Wick. While the debate about sexism in the film industry rages on, it was gratifying to see The Babadook and Obvious Child introduce some promising female talent — Jennifer Kent and Gillian Robespierre, respectively — who finally and deservedly owned the year. Those that didn’t make the cut, including the horror comedy Housebound, the neo-realistic beauty Stop the Pounding Heart, the nightmarish Enemy, and the moral epic Norte, the End of History, still come highly recommended.
In summation, it was a year of extremes, where the largest and smallest films impressed, while critics’ choices like Birdman, Nightcrawler, and The Grand Budapest Hotel left me cold despite stellar casts and fascinating premises. Due to lack of access (Pittsburgh, PA isn’t exactly a select city) or time, I have yet to experience A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Inherent Vice, Top Five, Dear White People, or Force Majeure, but look forward to seeing them in January.
10. The Double (Richard Ayoade)
Jesse Eisenberg hits the mark as a meek office drone who loses his identity and love interest (played by a captivating Mia Wasikowska) to a scheming doppelgänger in writer-director Richard Ayoade‘s take on Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s novella. Surreal, but never bleak, the dreamy dystopian tale explores the darkest corners of isolation and paranoia, an effect partly achieved through the many famous bit players who flit in and out of scenes at a dizzying pace (Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Cathy Moriarty, Chris O’Dowd, and Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis all make appearances). Eisenberg’s brilliant dual performance, along with plentiful noir lighting and rapid-fire dialogue, make for an outstanding, darkly comedic gem.
9. The One I Love (Charlie McDowell)
Imposters was the theme for 2014, and director Charlie McDowell‘s feature debut was no different. However, his work stood apart by effortlessly blending relationship drama, comedy, and sci-fi for the story of an unhappy couple (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) who, in an effort to save their marriage, head to a weekend retreat where not everything is as it seems. The perfectly cast Duplass and Moss display an undeniable chemistry, and Justin Lader‘s script sustains a tight, albeit natural pace as the mystery unfolds. Considering how well it turned out, I wouldn’t be surprised if The One I Love inspires more genre-bending experiments in the years to come.
8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)
As my fiance put it, if you show me a poster of a machine gun-wielding chimp riding a horse, I will go see that movie. Thankfully, Dawn is more than its over-the-top promotional material, instead proving a blockbuster that successfully combines spectacle with subversive (and not-so-subversive) commentary on power, bigotry, and warmongering. While many CGI-dependent summer releases degenerate into noisy messes, the follow-up to the reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes deftly juxtaposes quiet moments with big action, and lingers confidently on its fully developed and detailed ape characters. It’s still mind-blowing to think that Maurice, the exceptionally rendered sage orangutan, is the product of motion capture and pixels.
7. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski)
The crisp black-and-white drama from director and co-writer Paweł Pawlikowski covers so much ground in such a short time — identity, religion, nationality, and the fragile aftermath of war are just some of the issues explored over the course of 82 minutes. Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska delivers a stunning breakout performance as a young novitiate nun who discovers her tragic Jewish roots with her estranged aunt (an equally exquisite Agata Kulesza). Pawlikowski also employs off-center framing and a subdued tone to produce a gorgeous, evocative portrait of Soviet-era Poland.
6. Gone Girl (David Fincher)
Only David Fincher could turn a juicy best-seller into a masterful (if not completely off-the-rails) mystery thriller about a husband (Ben Affleck) swept up in a media frenzy after his wife (the awesome Rosamund Pike) disappears. Working from a screenplay by author Gillian Flynn, Fincher veers the audience away from relating to the main characters, instead choosing to unashamedly marvel at the selfish, manipulative exploits of — as supporting player Tyler Perry puts it — two fucked-up people.
Because, in the pressure to scramble together something before 2014 is a distant memory, I can think of hardly anything that defines this year to some significant degree, allow this shorter, still-definitive statement: it was a really good twelve months.
Wait, no — please don’t click away that quickly. If some of the capsules contained herein are a bit more terse than other write-ups you’ve encountered on this site and others, it’s primarily because these films stayed with me longer than a majority of those on previous year-end lists; although some were seen within the past two weeks (those who know my cinematic habits know that I’m terrible at keeping up with current releases), the rest have been allowed to sit for months, in some cases most of 2014, or are still dawning upon me in various ways. In other words: I’ve ruminated on some of these for so long, and have become so confident as to why I love them, that I don’t feel the greatest need to equate certain feelings with why they’ve ended up here — or “there,” for that matter. Should I get into questions of how one ranks higher than the other — my #7 could easily be my #6 (both represent the staking-out of new frontiers for the medium), #4 could easily wind up in second place if I were so inclined, etc. — no one will go home happy.
And, excepting the few that couldn’t be seen — Maidan, Winter Sleep, Leviathan, National Gallery, and The Strange Little Cat are stand-outs — on account of inconvenient logistics or bad timing (i.e. I was tired of being plunged into catch-up mode since mid-December), this is one of the more complete year-end considerations I’ve ever done. So good, actually, that an old practice is being jettisoned: while Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria are all great films that I saw this year, they will not be in distribution until 2015. Considering that 70% of the selections on this list premiered in 2013 — and considering the fact that I’m actually cheating a bit for one high-ranking title — it only seems fair to bump back future contenders in favor of several you’re far more likely to see at shorter notice. Those others will just have to fend for themselves between next January and December.
10. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez)
As if the people of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (by now some of the most adventurous in all of cinema) said, “Let’s remake Holy Motors as seen through the conceit of Michael Clayton’s final shot.” If Manakamana weren’t an illuminating window into many of the seemingly simple processes that constitute everyday living — to say nothing of how it marks new ways of absorbing the cinematic image — and only these comparisons stood, I would remain fond.
9. Life of Riley (Alain Resnais)
No, Life of Riley can’t and won’t ever be removed from the context of its creator’s passing, but the resulting points between art, life, and death upon which every seconds thus operates makes clear that it shouldn’t. On paper an absolute downer — and, frankly, sometimes is; how can an extended close-up of Sabine Azéma professing her love for an unseen collaborator not be? — but, in execution, a comic celebration of the limited life affords us, bolstered by a fascinatingly complex visual and aural orchestration. Resnais, ending his career on just about the best closing images any filmmaker could ever ask for, leaves us with no option but to do what its French title suggests: enjoy, drink, and sing.
8. Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)
The slow-motion, bronze-burnished descent into personal desolation, itself suggested as some men’s only way of ascending to artistic greatness. Already-mild concerns that we’d never receive a proper adaptation of Roth are forever gone, for Listen Up Philip’s commitment to this idea — aided in no small part by Perry’s growing formal acuity — brings us as close as we’ll ever need to get. Zuckerman, Lonoff, and, at some turns, Sabbath do indeed haunt the film’s periphery, but less as a result of direct influence — more, I think, because we’ve only now confronted the wreckage they leave behind.
7. Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi & Kambuzia Partovi)
Images within images, narratives within narratives, images as a means of advancing narrative, narrative as a means of undercutting the perceived truth of an image. Panahi’s second feature made under a decades-long filmmaking ban is initially dizzying in its onslaught of vague suggestions and dreamlike play with cinematic language, but the casual transition from intimate chamber drama to meta-textual rumination on one’s place in the world — and, tragically, Panahi questioning what anyone’s might be when no can hear your voice — exposes an emotional center so crystal-clear that Closed Curtain‘s mysteries need never be unlocked.
6. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard)
There may come a day when language has perished, love is gone, ideas no longer hold influence, art has lost its value, and only dogs rule the Earth — but if it is a day in which this film continues to exist, that should be a fair trade.
With each passing year, I lose less and less sleep over new releases. As of this writing on Dec. 30, I have logged 447 films on Letterboxd in 2014; the number of older movies (in the range of 260) more than doubled the number of theatrical releases or festival titles (about 120). (Add 50-or-so re-watches to the bunch, and the math should basically check out.) To illustrate: instead of spending the past week diligently catching up with must-see 2014 titles I missed during their U.S. theatrical run (What Now? Remind Me, Manakamana, Pompeii, The Strange Little Cat), I’ve chosen to marathon Clint Eastwood movies (The Gauntlet, Heartbreak Ridge, The Rookie, Tightrope, True Crime) in HD thanks to a handful of recently acquired iTunes gift cards.
Part of this is a byproduct of geography: in January, I’ll be starting my final semester as an undergraduate at New York University, which means that I’ve spent the past four years living in extremely close proximity to invaluable institutions like Anthology Film Archives, BAMcinématek, Film Forum, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of the Moving Image, and more. With the benefit of student prices and the service of MoviePass, there’s simply no conceivable reason for me to be more excited about seeing Birdman on opening weekend than, say, discovering Joan Micklin Silver’s aching Chilly Scenes of Winter in a once-in-a-blue-moon 35mm screening at IFC Center.
The point is: while I like the 2014 titles listed here, they are by no means representative of my overall year of movie-watching. Moreover, I don’t even feel comfortable writing about all of them, considering that, in some cases, it’s been over six or seven months since I saw them. One final disclaimer: for me, the most interesting and honest year-end lists are the ones that exist in a constant state of reevaluation, which is why this lineup looks slightly different than the one I submitted to the Village Voice a couple weeks ago. Check in with me in a few years, and if I’m doing things right, it’ll look even more different.
10. Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra) / A Walk Among the Tombstones (Scott Frank)
Through his recent collaborations with Joe Carnahan (The A-Team, The Grey) and Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, the forthcoming Run All Night), Liam Neeson has revealed a great nose for B-movie directors. These movies are so appealing in a throwback, churn-’em-out way—fast, tight, silly, tense, sincere—that they feel less like individual, self-contained works than various pieces of a specific period in Neeson’s career. (Admittedly, this generalization doesn’t do justice to the skill of each of these directors: Collet-Serra’s Boeing 767 and Frank’s pre-Y2K New York City are two of the most thoroughly realized settings I saw in a new release all year.) Neeson knocking back whiskey shots during the near-suicidal opening of The Grey becomes Neeson swigging from a flask in his car at the start of Non-Stop becomes Neeson mixing whiskey and black coffee as an off-duty cop in Tombstones. These two films have iffy third acts—Non-Stop‘s ludicrous bad-guy reveal, Tombstones‘ heavy-handed 12-Steps climax—but I’d sooner re-watch them than just about any other major 2014 studio release.
9. Locke (Steven Knight)
If I watched this movie again, I could probably come up with a meaningful explanation for why it works so well — surprise-supporter Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s “heroic, existential western” reading sounds like one accurate approach — but it honestly just played like a neat idea (a man in a car for 84 minutes) that Knight executed with absorbing intelligence and without a single misplaced note. Tom Hardy‘s presence at the center certainly helps: the actor gave a weird, reliably offbeat performance in The Drop, but his work here is even more definitive and detailed. Underneath a bath of yellow, soft-focus light, he makes and receives phone calls about cement and marriage, money and infidelity, fathers and sons. Hardy’s every move — his hand gestures, his breathing, his voice — is convincing.
8. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
Where a lot of recent Eastwood pictures (Changeling, Hereafter, even Jersey Boys) contain patches of awkwardness, American Sniper — particularly in its war sequences, which Joel Cox and Gary Roach edit with white-knuckle precision — exhibits a riveting level of control. This may just be the result of well-matched material (a character study about a born-and-bred cowboy nicknamed “the Legend” could hardly be more perfect for a myth-minded director like Eastwood); regardless, few images this year left me as pinned to my seat as the sight of a bearded Bradley Cooper situated behind his rifle, the camera pushing in on him as he grazes his cheek against the weapon. (Tom Stern‘s washed-out, overcast palette here is customarily striking.) Credit Eastwood, too, for offering a balanced portrait of Chris Kyle, wisely (and uncomfortably) pitched between patriotism and reflective critique. The movie is disturbed by Kyle’s values even as it attests to their authenticity.
7. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
This is not quite as physical as some of the Dardenne brothers’ earlier, more visceral work. Think, for one thing, of the blindsiding opening of Rosetta, in which the camera darts and races to follow Émilie Dequenne as she tries elude the grasp of her peeved boss (Olivier Gourmet). Even the plot, which is inherently formulaic and intensely organized, is less natural-seeming than the previous stuff. But their gifts — shrewd framing (notice how Marion Cotillard is constantly separated from her co-workers by some kind of barrier) and genuine human empathy — are still evident throughout. After witnessing the character’s agonizing, compressed cycle of naps, wake-ups, phone calls, arguments, rants, and pill-popping episodes, Cotillard’s short phone call that ends Two Days, One Night carries the weight of the world.
6. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Thinking back on this movie has produced such mixed feelings that I almost considered leaving it off this list, but then Ben Sachs wrote something that brought back the entire rush of emotion I felt after a first viewing: “The movie regards every character, no matter how minor, with the same poker-faced curiosity, suggesting that anyone we see could have a transformative effect on the protagonist — or that maybe everyone’s equally trivial in the scheme of things. Boyhood makes no attempt to resolve the issue; in the end the characters are left to go on living and take what comes. (When Patricia Arquette tearfully confesses, in her wrenching final scene, ‘I just thought there’d be more,’ she’s really stating the movie’s theme.)” This upsetting flipside to Ellar Coltrane‘s coming-of-age arc — Arquette’s growing disillusionment alongside her son’s growing fulfillment — is what struck me as Boyhood‘s essential, devastating truth.
2014 was a good year for films. I began this feature exactly the same way I did last year. What does that even mean? I suppose it means that there were lots of movies that I liked, and that there are many that I missed but would like to catch up on. (This year, a preliminary count for the latter is around 30.) I haven’t been at this for long, though, and, as we all know, something that seems great now may fade in years (rightly or wrongly), and something I overlook now could creep up in my consciousness over the next year or two — or five, or ten. And maybe thinking every year is good means they’re all average.
But who cares about how “good” of a year it is. I don’t know what that means. Here is what I know: I saw a number of films of varying quality comment with varying nuance on the artistic quality of now vs. then (though most obvious in Birdman and Only Lovers Left Alive, I would argue it’s also a part of The Immigrant and Inherent Vice); a pair of films made by very unalike people in radically different circumstances trying to push cinema forward (Goodbye to Language and Closed Curtain); and I enjoyed entirely unalike tearjerkers alongside films one could dismiss as mere aesthetic “exercises.” I think the variety of these kinds of films, in genre, origin, and style, points to a healthy cinema, even as, for example, America’s white-male monopoly is not being successfully combated. (Full disclosure: my list does not do as much as I would like as far as combating male dominance goes, domestic or abroad.)
Before we move on to a list of my favorites, I would like to clarify two things. First is the arbitrariness of the order, as if films that occasionally differ wildly in just about everything can be objectively evaluated. It should go without saying that I fell back on personal preference: what hit me the hardest while watching, what stuck with me, what do I find myself most eager to rewatch? Second, honorable mentions are for films of particular note that, for one reason or another, are not necessarily among films 10-1.
With that said, honorable mentions begin with Birdman, which would in fact be #11. It’s as self-congratulatory as the haters say, but its repeated toggling between subjective and objective points of view, sometimes with a pan or less to demarcate the two, points us toward an underutilized frontier for “digital cinema” in a way that, to me, is far more interesting than anything David Fincher or Michael Mann has done. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night has an unfulfilling script, but it’s a digitally shot black-and-white film that looks great, which I don’t think I had seen before. In Bloom is a solid film with one scene so good that I can’t help but highlight it somewhere. Alain Resnais, in my mind the director of cinema’s greatest achievement (Last Year at Marienbad), if not the cinema’s greatest director, went out on a fine note with Life of Riley, which seems to only grow in memory. James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence would require a rewatch in which I pay attention to detail instead of plot to decide how well-directed (as opposed to well-scripted) it is, but it was probably the most fun I had in a theater all year. There are more, but alas, I have gone too long already.
10. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)
The story of Panh and his family’s time under the Khmer Rouge is one worth listening to all on its own, and Panh tells it with a mix of regime-sanctioned footage and his own clay-figure dramatizations, the latter of which paradoxically makes the story more emotional even as it becomes more abstract. But Panh’s storytelling method also turns The Missing Picture into a statement about documentary and fiction themselves, with the title referring to the footage showing the real Khmer Rouge: genocidal executioners and the abusive slave-owners. No such footage exists, of course, and so the story told by film, allegedly indexical and documentarian by nature, is less true than the obvious re-creations that Panh must create from scratch rather than from events in front of him. A poetic, thoughtful voiceover, complete with references to Jean-Luc Godard, makes the film both lyrical and intellectual, but it also serves to describe conditions that cannot be shown. Panh is harvesting all the tools he has available to try to construct the missing picture, and his success is astonishing.
9. The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani)
Don’t let the people calling The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears a Giallo homage scare you; you don’t need to know anything about Italian horror to appreciate what Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are doing. Sure, the close-ups of gloves and knives are familiar to fans of the genre, and most, if not all, of the great music has been used in other movies, but the montage-heavy style, subjective camera work, and sound that seems to be turned on and off by particular images and movements is not quite like anything we are accustomed to, and is central to the film’s best sequences. Admittedly, the second half in particular begins to focus on a narrative that is not especially interesting, being downright plausible compared to the plots in the films of Argento and Bava (to name Italy’s best-known practitioners of horror), but the nonstop boldness and aesthetic proclivities more than make up for these shortcomings.
8. Gone Girl (David Fincher)
By far Hollywood’s greatest film of the year, Gone Girl should reassure The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo haters that Fincher is still in top form, something he reached with Zodiac and has arguably not fallen from since. Part of that is certainly finding better scripts and tightening his group of collaborators, with editor Kirk Baxter climbing aboard after Zodiac while DP Jeff Cronenworth (of Fight Club) and composers Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross make their third consecutive credits, but Fincher himself is, perhaps for the first time, able to recognize the absurdity of his high-concept films and play them for pitch-black comedy. For all its twists and turns and ostensible crime-thriller appearances, Gone Girl is Fincher’s funniest work, in no small part because it strong performances across the board, and it also makes for a deft commentary — not just of marriage or the media, but of our relationship to images in general.
7. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang)
In Stray Dogs, three actresses play the same character, with the first of them departing after the film’s first shot and the third taking over after the film’s central ellipse. The Buñuelian tactic gives the film a narrative ambiguity that could easily feel cheap and pointless, but Tsai makes it work. Perhaps it’s because Stray Dogs qualifies unambiguously as “Slow Cinema,” with shots of eating or looking at murals taking up several minutes, making it easy for the impatient and skeptical to say that “nothing happens.” But Tsai’s style forces us to question conventions, and among those conventions is the way in which we make sense of narrative. The ambiguity is therefore not just earned, but crucial. Tsai is equally subtle and clever in a series of four non-consecutive shots in which the protagonist (Lee Kang-sheng) serves as a human billboard, where the personal and political are gradually privileged, his aesthetic decisions being central to everything the film has to say. Never is this more clear or well-done than in the stunning penultimate shot, the film’s longest, in which humans — or at least the better of us — are implicitly differentiated from stray dogs because of our ability to find solace and make sense of art. Or, at least, that’s one interpretation of it. Thanks to that narrative ambiguity, Stray Dogs is not just perfectly executed — it’s also a gift that keeps on giving.
6. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez)
If Structural Film of the American avant-garde foregrounded the viewing process by minimizing narrative and film’s illusory, mystical qualities, Manakamana is a neo-Structural Film par excellence. Each shot is an unmoving look across a cable car leading to Manakamana Temple (Goddess Manakamana is said to grant the wishes of all those who pilgrimage to her, although, thanks to the cable car, what used to be a three-day trip is now a mere 11 minutes), lasting as long as a reel of 16mm film. The trips we witness are sometimes amusing, sometimes polite, sometimes awkward, but Manakamana lives in the details: in which direction is the camera looking this time, which way is the car moving, what else is different? By letting a number of rides play out in something close to silence, it turns our focus on ourselves, our own attention spans, and our own search for “clues” as to what, exactly, we should be looking for. We should, of course, be focused in part on our own viewing habits, but another great thing about Manakamana is that everyone seems to find something a little bit different in it.
While I certainly won’t evoke Chicken Little, and while the box office was down this year, the sky is not totally falling cinematically. But if we’re speaking frankly, 2014 produced far fewer masterpieces than in previous years. I’m not exactly sure what it is; perhaps blame it on the fact I’m a year older and thus crankier. But, as far as cinematic years go, I saw many good films, fewer excellent ones. The standout, a recurring headliner on these year-end lists, is without a doubt Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a new American classic, the kind of film that comes around once every five years, and one that my admiration has only grown for upon a second viewing. It, like the other excellent pictures gracing my list, make a space for us to live within the frame. This is no truer for Boyhood than it is for Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a gripping work of immediacy evoking contemporary civil rights issues currently playing out in American streets of Ferguson and Staten Island; the quiet, beautiful rhythms found in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep; and Mike Leigh’s fascinating Mr. Turner, with Timothy Spall giving the performance of the year.
2014 has produced several very good films, some I admit I have missed due to distribution quirks that are designed to separate the best of the bunch for a while until the major releases run their course. Others have languished between festival runs, while well-reviewed pictures came, went, and are waiting in limbo to be released and discovered. Besides those challenges, I remain convinced that some masterpieces are never seen, rejected by the gatekeepers and tastemakers, relegated perhaps to local and regional film festivals and uploaded by their creators to YouTube and Vimeo. Thinking about such things is akin to thinking if we are alone in the universe: it can keep you up at night.
10. Eden (Mia Hansen-Love)
In aiming to capture the development of French house music, Mia Hansen-Løve has crafted a brilliant, sweeping epic with the spirit of the New Wave. A psychological study of music creation, influenced by the globe-trotting lifestyle of Paul (Felix de Givry) through his ups and downs as he bounces between Paris and New York, Eden is richly textured, exciting filmmaking with excellent performances.
9. Wetlands (David Wnendt)
The grossest gross-out comedy of the year, and one of the rare films I’ve seen that has truly shocked me. Adapted from Charlotte Roche’s novel by David Wnendt, Wetlands is one of the year’s best (and not be confused by a 2011 French-Canadian masterpiece of the same name), no subject is taboo in this picture including sex, hygiene, gender, and identity. Fronted by Carla Juri as Helen, a young women with chronic anal fissures and heroine who answers questions we might be afraid to ask without a filthy mind and an open heart. Love is a battlefield, and Wetlands is a coming-of-age story that’s opening credits alone I suspect would shock (and delight) John Waters.
8. The Rover (David Michôd)
A cold-blooded, powerful and moral thriller staring Guy Pearce and (a virtually unrecognizable) Robert Pattinson as men traversing an apocalyptic landscape in rural Australia. A bleak and compelling nightmare lensed by Natasha Braier, The Rover is a chillingly sparse picture, cementing David Michôd as a new master.
7. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Recalling PTA’s earlier work, Inherent Vice is a brilliant ensemble fronted by “Doc” (Joaquin Phoenix), a down-on-his-luck, unlicensed private detective on a mission and finding himself in over his head. A twisted plot, which need not be explained here (after all, isn’t it best to go in cold?), yields endless surprises and rewards along the way in a film that’s all about mood, atmosphere and attitude. Delightful, dark and twisted — vintage Paul Thomas Anderson to its core, recalling the lighter moments of Boogie Nights with several new twists.
6. Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
An essential movie for 2014. Laura Poitras is granted a privileged perspective, remaining mostly objective as she becomes a participant in history. Invited by “Citizenfour,” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, to Hong Kong where he debriefs with Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald and others regarding the trove of documents chronicling domestic surveillance, Poitras completes here trilogy chronicling the US post-9/11. The result is a compelling and timely documentary attempting to add transparency, and with the assistance of crusaders such as William Binney, the film proves claustrophobic yet critical. Poitras, despite becoming a player in this saga, has crafted a remarkable, chilling picture, risking her freedom, security, and US citizenship to do so. Taking an often transparent approach by including email correspondence between all parties, Poitras exposes both the risks and the duties she and Greenwald have to their source, including the behind-the-scenes sausage-making as Snowden, both the man and his data, are crafted into a news package for the mainstream media.
I don’t want to label 2014 as a good, bad, or average year. I want to call it inventive, original, and delightfully dark. Whether it’s doppelgänger paradoxes leading to murderous rage, the bleak carnage of war, prison violence, or psychologically debilitating struggles to be great, my favorite films had an edge that cut to the bone by credits’ end.
I’ve yet to catch a bunch of the acting biggies like Mr. Turner, Still Alice, Foxcatcher, or Cake, but I’m not sure any would replace what I’ve listed below, no matter how good the central performances. No, the ones I regret seeing before the end of the year are A Most Violent Year, The Better Angels, Blue Ruin, and Nymphomaniac – work with the potential to get the heart pumping, both aesthetically and emotionally.
The best thing I can say about 2014 is that my top ten (heck, maybe my top twenty-five) could be re-organized and re-listed without making me too angry about what is mentioned before my #1 pick (that one stays right where it is). So maybe it was a good year after all.
10. Starred Up (David Mackenzie)
This film is fierce and unapologetic — two things I can’t help but find myself investing in, no matter what the subject matter might be in the end. Jack O’Connell is a a wreaking ball; Ben Mendelsohn a conflicted father learning far too late what such a title means once reunited with his son behind the bars of a maximum security prison. The evolution screenwriter Jonathan Asser gives his characters in so short a time is an impossible feat that only someone who experienced such a world in real life could even dream to complete. When the system is rigged, you do what you can to survive it. Often times, however, it’s never enough.
9. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater‘s twelve-year-long passion project earns a spot on this list for its sheer scope alone. The confidence to set a movie in motion with a shooting schedule spanning longer than a decade and two unproven child actors at its center is unimaginable. Sure, it doesn’t necessarily say much beyond those universal truths about adolescence that we’ve all experienced (because that’s not important), but it does so with a level of honesty you cannot manufacture during a two-month production. Add an unforgettable turn from Patricia Arquette as the mother doing what she can to give her children a good life, and we’re for all intents and purposes shown our America in its full, tragically optimistic glory.
8. Fury (David Ayer)
For all who label it too brutal or too redundant compared to an ever-increasing catalog of authentic war dramas: shut up. With quite possibly the best ensemble cast of 2014 anchored by a supporting actor Oscar nomination-caliber performance from Logan Lerman, I was on the edge of my seat throughout. Fury, like 2009′s Lebanon, is less about the war or the vehicle wearing the film’s title proudly as it is the men packed within a ticking bomb. It’s a character-driven work expertly written to allow each actor room to deliver as much substance by expression as words. A devastating two-plus hours at the movies.
7. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
A massively overlooked gem from 2014, Coherence is the cream of the science fiction crop whether my next two selections accompany them within the genre or not. It’s a bona fide head-scratcher bringing the Schrodinger’s Cat conundrum (popularized in The Big Bang Theory) to life before our eyes. A working knowledge of the physics definition of the title definitely helps get a foothold closer to solving its mysteries, but this puzzle of doppelgängers, coded boxes, and quasi-time travel delights in its impenetrability, too. It also proves how a great film isn’t just about A-list stars or big budgets. All you need to manufacture a suspense thriller spanning infinite dimensions is a single set.
6. Enemy (Denis Villeneuve)
A24 had a memorable year with a massive slate topped by this and my following entry. The afterthought at TIFF 2013 with director Villeneuve also bringing Prisoners to light, Enemy is the one that stuck in my mind long after it ended. Darkly sinister, with a central mystery you’ll have to decipher for yourself, Jake Gyllenhaal provides a physical manifestation of the good and bad angel on everyone’s shoulder. He might not be as crazed as he is in Nightcrawler, but the ferocity bubbling underneath his nice-guy façade is definitely present. Oh, and how about that spider?
There are a multitude of reasons why any film may get unfairly overlooked. It could be a lack of marketing resources to give it a substantial push, or, due to a minuscule roll-out, not enough critics and audiences to comprise the champions it might require. It could simply be the timing of the picture itself; even in the world of studio filmmaking, some features take time to get their due. With an increasingly crowded marketplace, it means there are more reasons than ever something might not find an audience and, like last year, we’ve rounded up the releases that deserved more attention.
Note that all the below films made less than $1,000,000 at the box office at the time of posting (VOD figures are not accounted for, as they normally aren’t made public) and are, for the most part, left out of most year-end conversations. Sadly, most documentaries would qualify for this list, but we stuck to strictly narrative efforts, and one can read our rundown of the top docs here. Check out the list below and let us know the 2014 films you loved that aren’t getting the recognition they deserve in the comments. A great deal of the below titles are also available to stream, so check out our feature here to catch up.
Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat)
The draw of Catherine Breillat‘s newest, autobiographical film, Abuse of Weakness (known as Abus de faiblesse in its native tongue), is ultimately to watch how someone so desperately in need can be preyed upon no matter their own intelligence, wealth, or stature. When tragedy strikes, unannounced, via a debilitating stroke, the fear of death and paralysis eventually leads to newfound tenacity and strength — but what no one who isn’t absolutely indebted to the help of others for even the most menial tasks (such as opening a door) can know is that the simple act of showing up may prove all-powerful. A friend with the rare quality of not tainting every kindness with a healthy dose of pity is everything. When that person is the only one taking the time to call and visit each day, you can’t really be blamed for doing whatever possible to repay the favor. – Jared M.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
Exuding a sly sense of style and cool, the Iranian vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the striking debut of writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour. From the outset, with one of our main characters, Arash (Arash Marandi), all but calling himself James Dean, I was enraptured. A hipster mentality permeates the fictional Bad City setting, where bodies are simply dumped into a ravine full of other bodies and there’s the mysterious presence of a skateboarding, vinyl-loving female vampire that isn’t afraid to feed. While the film takes its time to fully unwind, I was not yet ready to leave this world when the credits rolled. Hopefully we won’t have to wait long to enter Amirpour’s universe once again. – Bill G.
The Better Angels (A.J. Edwards)
Some directors emerge onto the scene with little prior experience in the industry; that’s certainly not the case for A.J. Edwards. He’d cut his teeth in Terrence Malick’s editing rooms, and the reticent director’s influence is clearly felt in every frame of Edwards’ debut, which tells the story of the early life of Abraham Lincoln. The bookends and a few references are just about the only thing indicating the future importance of our lead, and The Better Angels is determined to make this a more universal coming-of-age story. It’s constructed with the cinema-as-memory approach that Malick has perfected in his later films. While so many others attempt to replicate the style, Edwards is the first filmmaker to effectively summon this technique and make it his own. – Jordan R.
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Methodical, patient and unnerving — traits that are fitting a description of its principal character as it is to the overall sense of dread in Jeremy Saulnier’s unflinching revenge thriller. Echoing the vibes of early Coen brothers, specifically Blood Simple, the film’s narrative unravels cautiously, chock-full of fantastically grim surprises that will leave you gasping for air. Blue Ruin, anchored by a chilling performance from Macon Blair, is one of the best examples of a movie stripping away unnecessary genre conventions to bolster its chilling effect. - Raffi A.
The Blue Room (Mathieu Amalric)
Clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes, the film wastes little time in propelling forward its whodunit? narrative. It begins with two lovers, Julien and Esther (Amalric and Stéphanie Cléau), in a hotel room, their faces often cut out of the frame, their body parts fragmented, their beings usually depicted in isolation. When they both find their way into focus, they barely have enough room for the “classic” 1.33:1 ratio, suggesting isolation and an impending sense of the walls closing in. Heightening this is that, despite the narrower sight, shots nonetheless almost feel as if they may have been composed for 1.85:1 — people are cut-off and closed-in, eye lines are hidden from us, surroundings are short-sighted, and details are easy to miss. – Forrest C.
Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam)
Borgman is a truly original concept for a psychological thriller, where an enigmatic homeless person infiltrates an upper class family. It mixes the creepy oppressiveness of something like Haneke’s Funny Games filtered through the lens of a demonic procedural like Wicker Man. Equal parts mystery as it is dark satire, the experience is both creepy and fun as the motivations behind the titular character become increasingly bizarre. If you’re looking for a unique horror experience, you just gotta go Borgman. – Raffi A.
Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi)
Jafar Panahi, working with co-star Kambuzia Partovi, crafts a spiritual sequel to 2012’s This Is Not a Film that’s deeper, more mysterious, and perhaps even grimmer. What’s initially a close-quarter story of personal redemption grows into a two-headed beast: a documentary on the film you’re seeing and narrative concerning the documentation of said film. But it isn’t traveling down enough rabbit holes so as to eventually be incomprehensible — at least not when the emotional logic guiding one shot to the next is so crystal clear. 2014 offers no better option for fans of meta-textual and political cinema alike. – Nick N.
Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
I did an interview earlier this year with producer Dean Silvers, during which I brought up the idea that the availability and affordability of digital filmmaking equipment was ultimately cheapening the art of film, making it too easy to make a film look good. He argued, convincingly, that the ability to make a film look good without as much effort would allow natural storytellers to break through at a lower level of technical availability. Coherence proves him right, weaving a complex, engaging story about the inestimable possibilities of life and the chaos that comes from uncertainty with just single location and a handful of actors. The film hit VOD without much fanfare outside of the usual critic buzz, but I’m hoping that as time goes on it becomes a discovered classic, like Primer before it. – Brian R.
The Double (Richard Ayoade)
Rarely are comedies this unnerving. Director and co-writer Richard Ayoade creates a world that tortures his protagonist, Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), with sound, sight, and even characters who get excited about the idea of his suicide. Amusement comes at a price in The Double. While it’s an immaculately crafted film, a sense of loneliness is what gives all these (already gloomy) shots a real sense of emotion. Based on his latest and Submarine, Ayoade clearly understands the life of a loner. But it’s also infinitely watchable, thanks to a ton of great laughs. – Jack G.
Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund)
While Force Majeure has drawn easy comparisons to Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet — given their somewhat similar couples-torn-apart-by-life-or-death-situation concepts, as well as rigid festival-film formalism — Östlund actually seems more willing to explore his characters. Instead of coming off a mid-film stunt, the inciting incident of an avalanche is upfront in his first act, letting both a moral drama and a comedy of errors ensue as a marriage crumbles. – Ethan V.
The one thing I’ll state about the year overall: I found it notable that, despite being in the “digital” era, over half of my list was shot on 35mm or 16mm. Whether that is a personal taste for grain or simply fighting against, to quote the title of one 2014 release, the dying of the light, is how you may interpret it.
10. Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat)
A woman thinks she’s possessing another, unaware that she’s really the one being controlled, a limp arm the only physical sign of the demon inside her. Clinically staged to a Hitchcockian degree, a horror film that uses the directness of the camera to bring us closer to a mystery that only a filmmaker capturing her own autobiographical past could understand with such chilling methodology.
9. “American Mythologies” Trilogy – The Immigrant / Inherent Vice / Jersey Boys (James Gray / Paul Thomas Anderson / Clint Eastwood)
Three directors in search of the mythic 20th century, capturing iconic surfaces to dig into the complexity behind them. Archetypes abound, but the camera pushes beyond the symbols of an era to find the cost of human emotion, whether through the close-up of a face, a two shot framing polar opposites as brothers, or the revelation of the artifice of light and sound. These are films looking at the past, but instead of giving a distant view from the present, they envelop us to show that we are standing directly in their moment, too.
8. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
A documentary of This American Century, but ultimately a story of rejection, a hope for something beyond the city limits is a way out of family values, politics, Texas life, technology, and more. But as much as we may stage an alternative, we can’t help but be shaped by the factors that made us. “The moment seizes us,” defining us when we least expect it.
7. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez)
Technology and nature together, enabling a series of conversations between young and old, native and foreigner, religious and atheist, and even animal and man. A film that emphasizes our ability to look directly and understand, celebrating the small delights of this world — even a race to finish an ice cream bar.
6. John Wick (Chad Stahelski & David Leitch)
If Johnnie To can’t make movies the way he used to, Keanu Reeves can.