Friday, January 9, 2015

The 40 Best Films of 2014

What does the cultural barometer tell us about ourselves in 2014?  I think our films tell us that we are resilient.  Look at Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken: these films aren’t Jessica Chastain crying in the back of a military transport, they’re about heroes doing heroic, American things.  Funny, then, that the latter is a story of forgiveness that never gets to the forgiving, and the former is a tale of war-caused PTSD which ends before its real-life protagonist’s life is cut short by a veteran with PTSD.  They’re jingoistic smoke and mirrors with the guts to only look at the smoke.

A recurring theme in this year’s films is the uncanny valley: doppelgangers abound, enemies disguised as ourselves, emasculation of and prescribed heroes and, in the case of Doc Sportello, learning he couldn’t see the mirrors for the smoke.  We need the movies not for, as Detective Rustin Cohle says, the “transference of fear and self-loathing to an authoritarian vessel,” but to see what is ugly about ourselves and why this demands we approach others with grace.  This bumper crop projects our lives back upon us, reminding that sometimes what is hardest to watch is the most necessary.  Our resilience was never called into question, only its cost.

With no intention of being contrarian, my list avoids the much fawned-over Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue or Ignorance) and I find much of their praise misguided herd mentality.  The best of the three, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a hell of a gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless and one that would be better served with a more cohesive through line and character depth.  Writer Guild and ACE editing nominations belittle much of the work on my list which didn’t have the luxury of twelve years.

I used to be an unabashed, card-carrying member of the Cult of Wes Anderson and still hold The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited in my top 100 films of all time.  Crushing to me is that, since the naval-gazing increased with his last two features, he has finally achieved universal acclaim.  His work has become a parody of itself and leaves me hollow where it was once edifying.  The notes are pristine, but they ring untrue.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is ramshackle, fun and a throwback to classic screwball comedy—kind of in the same way Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight is a throwback to classic romantic comedy.  One is seen as a shallow disappointment, one has bloggers lobbying behind it for Best Picture nominations.  Both lie somewhere in the middle.

Birdman is another beast altogether.  Perhaps the most critic-proof of the three, the film attempts to both vilify Hollywood’s franchise inclination (a lazy critic’s m.o.) and eat its cake too, lecturing a one-dimensional critic.  Embarrassing, then, that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Godzilla are all better and more human films.  The indictment on critical herd mentality isn’t unfair, only misplaced: the critic’s job is to trace culture’s de Broglie-Bohm theory.  To express what is objective, in our souls, about the arts.  To expose pretention and put words to the poetic ineffable.  Birdman, as it turns out, is indeed quite effable.  Eff Birdman.

The punchline is all of this is likely moot as far as the Academy is concerned, for The Imitation Game certainly looks most like a Best Picture™.  Kudos for being honest enough among the contenders to eponymously name its feign at art.

I initially intended to wait to compose my list until A Most Violent Year grew legs into the Phoenix suburbs.  As it turns out, that won’t be until at least January 23.  It is with a heavy heart that the film joins a short list of contenders which I found no way to see in 2014: A Girls Walks Home Alone At Night, National Gallery, Citizenfour, The World of Kanako, Stray Dogs, Mommy and three films which have yet to find distributors: Darkness by Day, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga and Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait.  I hope this working list is usurped by a few of these in the year to come.  Conversely, it was hard to bite my tongue and leave Yann Demange’s ’71 off the list as it is due for U.S. distribution in February.  Even with spots reserved for the possibility of two Terrence Malicks, it’s assured a top ten finish in 2015.

40. Night Moves (d. Kelly Reichardt)
A course filter divides the surface from the subtext in the films of Kelly Reichardt.  Night Moves is no exception: though a fine ecological thriller, the synopsis is hardly what is going on.  It presents the means of morality’s slippery slope to outrageous ends and speaks about what we don’t say to one another. 

39. Coherence (d. James Ward Byrkit)
Julia Kristeva says in her essay “Powers of Horror” that fear is processed through the categorization of the abject: “A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness … Not me.  Not that.  But not nothing, either.  A ‘something’ that I do not recognize as a thing.  A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me.”  I’ll leave it to the reader to decide why, in a culture of avatar, it is the self which has become abject in a year of horrific doppelgangers (Enemy, The Double, The One I Love).

It seems fitting, then, that Coherence is itself a doppelganger of one of 2013’s best films all grown up: the Tinder to +1’s Snapchat.  A tense science fiction film with, remarkably, no special effects.

38. A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (d. Ben Rivers and Ben Russell)
A matter of personal taste regarding the film's last third kept this documentary from being much higher on my list. Just as (gasp, dare we utter the term "shoegaze") documentary Beautiful Noise and the straightforward newsreel R.E.M. by MTV ended higher than they probably deserved on my list because they spoke to my interests, my dispassion for Scandanavian death metal (in the form of a half-hour one-shot) broke the otherwise effective, philosophical trance the film’s esoterica had on me. This isn't a flaw, per se, but, for a documentary which demands to be approached subjectively, it was a shame that, at least for me, it couldn't sustain its glorious heights.

37. The Time-Eaters (d. Harry Dodge)
A Kierkegaardian Before Sunrise re: hydrophilic chemistry, the cremasteric reflex and pie crusts.

36. Exhibition (d. Joanna Hogg)
A film of boundaries (wife-husband, body-environment, interior-exterior), Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition characterizes architecture and approaches voyeurism as the tensiometer finds wildly variable measurements on the words between the words.

35. John Wick (d. Chad Stahelski)
The culmination of two of 2014’s most popular tropes: ‘90s action revisionism (The Guest, The Raid 2, Edge of Tomorrow, The Expendables 3) and murdering a dog (The Babadook, Calvary, Maps to the Stars, Joe, Cheap Thrills) in a film that would make pre-millennial John Woo proud.

34. Goodbye to Language (d. Jean-Luc Godard)
It will certainly take multiple viewings before I’m able to expose the continental crust of Godard’s narrative of breathtaking imagery, but suffice to say that one viewing proved there was an unmistakable “there” there.  It’s as if the 84-year-young master was able to reconcile Andrei Tarkovsky’s pathos with Stan Brakhage’s lyricism in an alternate universe that didn’t end in a temper tantrum.

33. Foxcatcher (d. Bennett Miller)
Miller follows Moneyball with another non-sport sports movie about the curios of greatness (ornithologist), the mechanization of intangibles (philatelist) and the obsession to please (philanthropist).

32. We Are The Best! (d. Lukas Moodysson)
My favorite Moodysson by a country mile, in part because it doesn’t feel like it has to try so hard to be anti-establishment or paint its female protagonists wise beyond their years.  Funny, then, that its subject matter is punk rock and joyful empathy.  It’s bittersweet in the same mysterious way that, for me, the distance between Odelay and Kid A seems like the same lapse in time between Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and now despite all quantitative evidence to the contrary. 

31. Calvary (d. John Michael McDonagh)
Dissertations could be written on the metaphor of Father James’s personification in a post-Christian Ireland, but the film is as powerful without any theological gymnastics.  A grim, white-knuckle whodunit made all the more harrowing in that our protagonist knows both his fate and its perpetrator from the inciting incident.  Bleak yet edifying, something tells me this isn’t the film Noah detractors were hoping for either.

30. Starry Eyes (d. Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer)
Something I can finally, with no hesitation, thank Chuck Palahniuk for.

29. Ernest & Celestine (d. Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner)
If I had a problem with The Lego Movie it was that its message was the anti-Brad Bird: a perpetuation of the myth that it is the ordinary rather than the gifted (The Incredibles) or the disciplined (Ratatouille) that leads to greatness. That the ironic point of "Everything Is Awesome" is lost on America speaks to its failure to deliver a worthwhile message. Again, it's the child who parents the adult.

Ernest & Celestine certainly feels message-y, but it’s a message the world needs more of: an almost subversive necessitation of otherness for survival rather than hollow self-esteem building.

28. Noah (d. Darren Aronofsky)
I can’t think of Darren Aronofsky without thinking of the anecdote Mickey Rourke gave when receiving the Best Actor Independent Spirit Award for The Wrestler in which Aronofsky’s response to Rourke’s appraisal that “directors like Darren Aronofsky come around every 25 years” was “30.”  He is smug, he’s self-righteous, and his intent to piss off certain people would make him a troll if he weren’t able to put up.  Noah might not have been the film anyone was looking for, but that wasn’t the only reason I found it edifying: the film is a depiction of, a response to, and an exercise in grace.  What anyone missed about it was lost in pretext; it took, as Rourke suggested, balls.

27. Whiplash (d. Damien Chazelle)

26. Cheap Thrills (d. E.L. Katz)
Self-reprobating noir realized as a black comedy and the remarriage of Pat Healy and Sara Paxton, this is that Quentin Tarantino segment of Four Rooms ad infinitum. 

25. Too Many Cooks (d. Chris “Casper” Kelly)
A condensed, Internet-era marriage of Chris Elliott’s “Action Family” and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland sincere in its meta-irony.  I Am A Strange Loop, indeed.

24. Cold In July (d. Jim Mickle)
One of my most joyous experiences with a movie this year was when I entered Cold In July expecting it to be the sister film to Blue Ruin only to find the trailer’s entire narrative was over in about twenty minutes.  Unapologetically shaggy dog for shaggy dog’s sake and a killer supporting cast which, in an ideal world, would give Oscar nominations to both Sam Shepard and Don Johnson.

23. Bird People (d. Pascale Ferran)
I absolutely adored how lightly Pascale Ferran tread in her barely-hemmed joint narrative exploring life’s transience.  A perfectly quotidian magic realism.

22. Mister John (d. Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy)
A modern take on Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack stripped of even the ghost of masculine agency. 

21. Gone Girl (d. David Fincher)
Though it’s hard to cleanse a somewhat misogynistic aftertaste, Fincher’s thriller is sticky and a hell of a lot of fun. The tonal shifts alone are rapturous. 

20. God Help the Girl (d. Stuart Murdoch)
I left the theater in September prepared to defend this film as a guilty pleasure—an easy task considering I’d already been living with the soundtrack for five years.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the strength and affect as its roots set in.  Despite the references in song, God Help the Girl is Murdoch’s most autobiographically straightforward telling of his struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome and, with a family member of my own who had the disease rob her of important young-adult landmarks, Murdoch’s tender obsession with adolescence is fully realized and recontextualized in a new medium.  It’s a joy, and I don’t have to curb that statement by calling it “amateurish” or “twee.”

19. Edge of Tomorrow (d. Doug Liman)
So much more than its gimmick (how tedious was every bearing-setting reiteration at the end of every Memento chapter?  Doesn’t happen here.), who would have guessed that the indie darling of Swingers and Go would become Hollywood’s greatest action director?  The high-concept pitch of Groundhog Day meets Call of Duty is transcendent.

18. Godzilla (d. Gareth Edwards)
Though I found his own Monsters disappointing, Gareth Edwards managed to miraculously deliver everything I wanted out of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim.

17. The Wind Rises (d. Hayao Miyazaki)
The U.S. release of The Wind Rises landed after awards season hoopla (February 21), and after Hayao Miyazaki’s September 2013 announcement that it would be his last directorial effort.  This knowledge made the weight of melancholy in the film’s last moments two-fold: not only is this a goodbye to our greatest living animator, but a proudly bittersweet autobiographical acceptance of a life well spent. 

16. The Raid 2: Berandal (d. Gareth Evans)
Where The Raid: Redemption felt like a video game (with its lead literally leveling up and battling mini-bosses), Evans’s sequel is a different beast entirely.  Its convoluted plot is a slow burn over several years which, when finally injecting the narrative with video game mini-bosses (Alicia Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man, actual character names), almost pulls us out of the story.  What delights is the action and choreography shown in a gripping and comprehensible way: a dying cinematic art.

15. The Unknown Known (d. Errol Morris)
I regret not having seen the Errol Morris-endorsed Citizenfour and another documentary, National Gallery, which sounds like it would have made my top five, but it’s no small consolation to see Morris’s take on another controversial secretary of defense.  Where The Fog of War humanized Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld exudes a persona of candid delusion.  His smugness will frame his chapter in American history.

14. The Guest (d. Adam Wingard)
Fear not: where Ti West’s The Sacrament disappointed in 2014—not because of its shift away from source-respecting exploitation films, but for robbing its audience of the suspense that made those visceral films joyful—we still have Adam Wingard to jolt us with surprise within a familiar formula.  The Guest is his best film yet.

13. Clouds of Sils Maria (d. Olivier Assayas)
Sometimes it takes a film like Clouds of Sils Maria to remind that a film like the critically untouchable and similarly themed Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)'s only attempt toward the Bechdel Test has two women ironically making out with each other. Each film plays on the actor's role as pretend, but only one reminds us how "pretentious" means so much more. The latter makes a show of the high road while cracking low-hanging jokes about Justin Beiber, stage hard-ons and face jism (all of which wasting Zach Galifianakis), the former casts Kristen Stewart alongside Juliette Binoche.

Of all the accolades surrounding Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone, the real award should go to Lindsay Duncan for scaring critics into failing to expose Birdman for the sham it is. Clouds of Sils Maria is one hundred times the film Birdman is.

12. Fargo: Series 1 (d. Adam Bernstein, Randall Einhorn, Colin Bucksey, Scott Winant and Matt Shakman)
FX has created a universe where Matin Freeman channels William H. Macy, Billy Bob Thornton is a captive bolt pistol away from Anton Chigurh, a small-town bootstrapping magnate gets ransom notes rife with biblical references and diners advertise specials on White Russians.  A life of the Coen mind.

11. Borgman (d. Alex van Warmerdam)
Fitting nicely on a double-bill with Noah, van Warmerdam’s horror (maybe?), black comedy (maybe?) reads like a fever dream, exploring the origins of evil to ambiguous ends.  Staking frightening, unstirred ground somewhere between nihilism and moralism, the question of evil is punctuated with random acts of violence and extends, without reason, to young children committing heinous acts. A visceral David Lynch adaptation of Michael Haneke.

10. Blue Ruin (d. Jeremy Saulnier)
An unapologetic (viz. my favorite kind of) genre piece, Blue Ruin is, obviously, about the pain and price of revenge.  This seems hardly the point when its pacing and narrative elements are this drum-tight.  This is why we go to the movies.

9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (d. Matt Reeves)
Though never a fan of The Band, “The Weight” seemed to tenderly re-write itself, creeping into my marriage over the last couple of years as its own Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.  My wife and I turned to each other when it popped up at the perfect moment in Dawn of the Planet of the ApesThis was why.

8. The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (d. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani)
Following the horror genre on Rotten Tomatoes exposes not only how off-base the formula is, but how finicky (if not clueless) most critics are.  In 2014, two similarly-themed and similarly-realized found-footage bigfoot movies were released within a few months of each other.  Bobcat Goldthwait’s Blair Witch Project-inspired Willow Creek is “certified fresh” with an 86% approval rating, while Blair Witch Project director Eduardo Sánchez’s Exists boasts a mere 14% splat among “top critics.”  I suspect much of this is self-congratulatory herd mentality.

The same herd jumped on the Berberian Sound Studio bandwagon last year despite its nearly-unapproachable convoluted narrative, but turned on Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s follow up to their well-received Amer as if visceral confoundment—on principle--wasn’t praised in the work of Argento and Antonioni. The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is an exercise but, like all discipline, it rewarding in the long run. Its dismissal is a double-standard.

7. Force Majeure (d. Ruben Östlund)
The darkly humorous Swedish cousin to 2012’s The Loneliest Planet, Force Majeure’s structure ups the stakes by adding the weight of family.  Read by some as an indictment of the upper class, I think that argument misses the point: the selfishness of Johannes Kuhnke’s Tomas isn’t foreign because of wealth and we’re not to look down on him because he is (as the original title suggests) an unwelcome tourist.  We are all tourists on the loneliest planet and, just as the ambiguous ending suggests, neither gender is sure-footed in their prescribed social roles.  I guess it’s the same punchline that “we need the eggs,” but it sure stings to the point that I’m not sure it’s a joke any longer.

6. The Tale of the Princess Kagauya (d. Isao Takahata)
The heir to the Studio Ghibli throne upon Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, Isao Takahata’s first feature since 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas is breathtakingly beautiful, profoundly familial in a way that trumps Pixar’s best, and, again, disappoints at the Japanese box office. 

5. Only Lovers Left Alive (d. Jim Jarmusch)
Inherently uncategorizable.  Cool, confident, and self-contained.

4. True Detective: Series 1 (d. Cary Joji Fukunaga)
Decorum says this title shouldn’t even be in the running, but in a year where the French blurred the line between miniseries and film proper with Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin and the U.S. moved closer to the U.K. method of confusing Emmy voters by producing miniseries as series, it would be wrong to not treat this self-contained neo-noir contextualizing of themes from The King In Yellow (or Thomas Ligotti for that matter) simply because it had eight hours with which to do so on premium cable.  It was certainly more enthralling and narratively succinct than the 4+ hours I spent watching Norte, the End of History.

3. The Strange Little Cat (d. Ramon Zürcher)
An unthinkable debut which reads like Jacques Tati adapting Franz Kafka. A cinematic exercise in the creation of memory.

2. Inherent Vice (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Fifty years on, Paul Thomas Anderson picks up the torch to bring the first Thomas Pynchon adaptation to the screen and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it becomes the most misunderstood film of the year.  Like the Coen Brothers (whose own The Big Lebowski rakes familiar coals of noir semiotics) who established a strong, niche indie career with self-penned screenplays, what impresses me most about Anderson’s later work is his flawless understanding of adaptation: not just of the written word, but of an era.  It is cultural commentary on the genre, our understanding of the medium, or, if you insist, merely pulp: it’s a sticky gumshoe noir which seeks—perhaps only—to explain itself.  This proves to be more than enough.

1. Under The Skin (d. Jonathan Glazer)
As indescribable as it is unshakable, Jonathan Glazer’s genre-bending horror is the most frightening film since Antichrist and achieves this through similar means: turning the mirror on humanity in otherworldly fashion.  Like the popularity of 2014’s doppelganger, the abject in Under the Skin takes the form of a beautiful woman, while approachable humanity is deformed and lacking.  Not fair to call her cruel, but calculated, mechanical, and expressionless in her violence, it is the empathy underscoring her abjection which haunts me.  An unholy combination of nature and nurture.  It subverts cinema's male gaze by literally turning us inside-out.

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