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.
5. Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund)
Beautifully simple yet breathtakingly bleak, the family turmoil at the heart of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure hits a deeply resonant emotional chord. The plot revolves around an unexpected force of nature in the Alps that plunges a Swedish family into a frigid turmoil on a holiday retreat. There is an undercurrent of darkly comedic vibes that are accentuated with minimalist cinematography that carefully uses the wintery elements, like the encompassing blindness of snow, to great effect. But it’s the deadpan stares and demeaning looks between husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) that make it hard to turn away from the awkwardness of this powerful family drama.
4. The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)
Devoid of any spoken words, music, voice-over or even subtitles, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s debut feature film The Tribe is communicated through sign language, for all the characters are deaf. This provides a unique challenge for any audience member not versed with how to sign, as the filmmaker provides no direct explanation of what characters are actually saying. While this may initially seem daunting, a viewer’s patience and keen observation is rewarded by a haunting cinematic experience that truly is unlike anything else this year.
3. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater’s twelve-year love letter to the journey of childhood to adolescence is nothing short of astonishing. The time-traveling effect is reminiscent of Michael Apted’s marvelous Up Series, which traces the journey of humans through their life every 7 years, but these jumps are far more subtle in the implementation of an artistic narrative. The character’s growth acts as a mirror for our own, creating an evolving tapestry that touches on universal themes that all humans deal with. Poetic and personal, Boyhood’s voyage through time is deeply poignant.
2. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard)
No experience at the theaters was as fun and jolting as Jean-Luc Godard’s abstract acid trip into life, language, and lunacy. The impressionistic use of 3D is reminiscent of the way he subverted digital technology with In Praise of Love during the advent of digital cameras, by shooting half of that film in black-and-white 16mm and the other in standard video format. Godard similarly uses different expressions and the third dimension to startling effects, like only a true artist who appreciates the complexity of the medium would. Bizarre, brazen and bold, it’s so refreshing to know that, at the age of eighty-four, Godard has never felt more alive.
1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
While comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey are usually never really just, there is an uncanny resemblance to Kubrick’s sci-fi epic and Jonathan Glazer’s rapturous third film. This connection is within the elusive manner in which both films operate, giving the audience a sense of wonder, confusion, and, ultimately, shock. Scarlet Johansson delivers arguably the best performance of her career, the editing and soundtrack harmonize to great effects, and the manner in which obsession and sexuality are explored is absolutely bone-chilling. Haunting and disturbing, yet nothing short of stunning, Under the Skin will envelope you into its mesmerizing dark abyss and never let go.