Top Ten of 2014

My writing output and moviegoing diminished in 2014 for actual if slightly depressing reasons, but that will not deter me from telling you what were the best movies of 2014. More accurately, the best movies from February 2014 to February 2015. Even more accurately, the movies I thought were the best from February 2014 to February 2015. It’s a fact totally my opinion. But my opinion means a lot to me and at least a little to, like, five other people, and because it means a lot to me and a little to almost no one else I accept the obligation placed on me by no one to list in reverse order my ten favorite movies from the last year-ish. They, along with some honorable mentions and superlatives at the end, are:

10. Two Days, One Night, directed by the Dardennes Brothers

C’est dire, Deux jours, une nuit. I took a year of French in law school, which had two effects. One, my parents became even more proud of me. Two, anything I read in French I immediately say out loud in a ridiculous French accent, which is better than my Spanish accent, and after taking Spanish for nine years that’s not saying much, but I like presenting myself as a Francophile now…MARION COTILLARD IS GREAT. My first Dardennes movie, and a harrowing modern take on Italian neorealism (yes, in French).

9. Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-Ho

Along with The Grand Budapest Hotel, the most artful act of world-creation in movies last year and definitely the weirdest. Despite its multiple homages to Terry Gilliam, Someone I’m Just Not That Into, and despite its insinuation that society can be reduced to one allegory, it’s a colorful and darkly entertaining film that’s cringeworthy both because it’s gross and because humanity just sucks. Hey, sometimes you imagine that society can be reduced to one class allegory, and you can imagine all the time that humans aren’t doing wonders for the world. At the same time, it’s still a fucking movie, man, and an eccentric and enjoyable ride.

8. Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh

Remember those Magic Eye books? This film features the best visual stunt I saw on screen in 2014, a cut from one of J.M.W. Turner’s paintings to what at first looks like a close-up of that same painting but is revealed, after your eyes adjust, as a rocky cliffside in some remote part of the country. CRAZY SHIT. A biopic that avoids the genre’s clichés by avoiding exposition altogether. Half the time its subject, played masterfully and so, so Britishly by Timothy Spall grunts instead of speaks, letting the inflection or the amount of phlegm he coughs up talk for him. A movie that spans a life while offering an intimate and satirical glimpse into the British art scene of Turner’s time. Thanks to AP Art History I most appreciated his disdain for Constable.

7. The Overnighters, directed by Jesse Moss

Sin is inevitable, and sadly is even more noticeable in those who openly espouse their Christianity. Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor in North Dakota, overrun by single men looking for work in its booming fracking industry and for shelter in its towns whose infrastructure is incapable of housing them, soon confronts the limits of his neighbors’ and his own ability to forgive, love and trust. Riveting and above all empathetic, this is my favorite documentary of the year, and the best I’ve seen in several years.

6. Timbuktu, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako

Like The Overnighters, this film stands out for its humanism. A fictional snapshot of the titular Malian city during its recent takeover by an Islamist militia, Timbuktu emphasizes the humanity of those townsfolk who resent the encroach on the historic cultural center proper and on their culture itself, which has coexisted with Islam for centuries. The film equally emphasizes the humanity of the Islamists, too. For example, a young rebel who used to be a rapper struggles to convey the forceful solemnity needed to record one of those ubiquitous home videos—he’d rather emulate Jay-Z. The result is not sympathy, though. As Bilge Ebiri noted, their brutality is more disturbing because it arises naturally. Stubbornness in certainty is quite human, and potentially quite scary.  GO SEE IT IT’S STILL IN THEATERS.

5. Inherent Vice, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

It only took until his seventh movie for PTA to avoid harping on fathers and sons, but Inherent Vice fits perfectly within his oeuvre, another elegy for his native California. It also happens to be one of the funniest movies of the year and one I suspect that I’ll have a different reaction to every time I see it. A postmodern successor to great noir like Chinatown and The Long Goodbye, PTA deftly adapts Pynchon for film, the density of the prose contrasting with the smoky haze that permeates its characters bungalows. Inherent Vice is an enveloping 2.5 hour experience.

4. Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

In the black and white aftermath of the Holocaust and stuck in the corrupt communist present, and young Polish nun learns about her family’s history. Fun for everybody! It’s not as dark as it seems, and the two lead performances (the nun and her aunt, a woman with a reputation as a coldhearted judge) have much to do with that, as does its short running time. Rather than trolling for Oscars (though it’s likely to win one!) it’s inquisitive and honest in acknowledging history rather than whitewashing or ignoring it.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson

When I first saw Grand Budapest, I was not expecting to rank it this high on my end-of-year list. I wasn’t even convinced it would crack the top ten. Much of that had to do, I think, with the film’s trailer giving away some of its funniest lines. In the months since, I’ve thought a great deal about Ralph Fiennes’ performance, one I’d argue is the most layered one given in a Wes Anderson film. Matt Zoller Seitz, probably the foremost Wes Anderson scholar, highlighted the film’s signature joke: underneath the suffocating air of M. Gustave’s perfume is a man, a vulgar, giddy, strange and lonely man who just can’t help himself. The joke, then, is not without sadness, as indicated by its abrupt and stunning coda. And again, Anderson, who works so frequently with young actors, succeeds in imbuing a film with maturity.

2. Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

A film that transcends its gimmick and is a beautifully written film. I wrote this summer that Linklater constructed an anti-coming-of-age story, focusing less on Big Moments (virginity, injury, getting into college) and instead on daily life, though one of Boyhood‘s best touches involves Linklater’s running up against some of these clichés before pulling away, leaving those Big Moments offscreen. The mundane details on the surface combined with the passage of time allow us to empathize with all main characters, from the boy to his parents, sister and relatives. A fine encapsulation of Linklater’s career that of course displays his gifts with actors professional or otherwise.

1. Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

A stunning avant-garde meditation on humanity and femininity, seen through the eyes of someone who a passerby would first think exhibits both but actually possesses neither. While less than forthcoming with answers, Under the Skin is far from impenetrable because it prompts so many questions, including asking us about the essence of our interactions with each other. Can we adapt? Doing so means finding a self-control we probably don’t possess. The movie’s chilling and strange omniscience is deepened by Scarlett Johansson’s performance and Mica Levi’s evocative score.

Honorable Mentions, in alphabetical order:

Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Not as pretentious as you think, and does justice to the Latin American magic realist tradition.

Force Majeure, directed by Ruben Östlund. Impotence of a male-model caliber Swedish father as fodder for black comedy.

Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller. Haven’t heard anyone mention that this film is actually about dynasties and families, and the power that a name has over the individual.

Leviathan, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Never move to Russia.

Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez. An exercise in visual anthropology, the film consists only of fixed shots of travelers, pilgrims or tourists, to a Nepali shrine. Some of them don’t even talk. I am so fucking weird.

Nightcrawler, directed by Dan Gilroy. Fully aboard the Jake Gyllenhaal train after this seedy L.A.-at-night film.

Nymphomaniac, directed by Lars von Trier. As crazy and hectored as you’d think, but it morphs by Part II into a strong argument in favor of obscenity. I’m on board with any strong argument in favor of obscenity.

Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robespierre. Hopefully the first of many starring roles for Jenny Slate and a funny movie that wisely avoids moralizing.

Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay. Well first of all it’s FICTION and having read the first three Caro on LBJ volumes it accurately characterizes LBJ! Introduces a few too many side characters just to have them die, but on the whole is a moving and incredibly timely picture not just in light of Ferguson but in the shadow of the Shelby County ruling.

We Are the Best!, directed by Lukas Moodysson. I’m a sucker for good movies about kids, and these three misfit Swedish girls who form a punk band despite two of them having no musical talent whatsoever were so ebullient.

Special Honorable Mention: Life Itself, directed by Steve James. A bit ironic I suppose that I don’t feel right ranking a movie about a guy who had to rank movies all the time, but sentiment creeps in. Also, Siskel was the man.


Best performances of the year: Ralph FiennesThe Grand Budapest Hotel; Jake GyllenhaalNightcrawler; Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin.

Best screenplays of the year: Wes AndersonThe Grand Budapest Hotel; Paul Thomas AndersonInherent Vice; Richard LinklaterBoyhood.

Best cinematography / funniest awards show name of the year: Dick PopeMr. Turner.

Best score since The Social Network: Mica LeviUnder the Skin

First movie I’ve ever seen from Mali: Scroll back up, it’s on the list and you should see it!

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2 Responses to Top Ten of 2014

  1. moviequail says:

    thanks for a solid list. Your clear, concise summaries are little works of art that intrigue and entice.

  2. That's what she said. says:

    Dude, what about Dumb and Dumber to? Horrible Bosses2? TRANSFORMERS!!!! Common. Even though you left off these iconic movies I’m still going to consider myself as one of the five people you write for. Keep up the good work bro, miss you tons. xoxo

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