by Walter Chaw Two things in 2014. Well, one in 2013 and one in 2014. The first was the Telluride Film Festival, which occurs on Labour Day Weekend and which I attended for the first time in a decade in 2013. The second was a conversation I had with a friend over Skype earlier this year, around the time of my 41st birthday. They led me, those two things, to change my life over from one of quiet desperation to one of perpetual stimulation and challenge. I left a major corporation and a job that provided security and some measure of stability to become general manager of the Alamo Drafthouse in my home state of Colorado. As someone who tends towards depression, it's hardly hyperbole to say that it was a decision that probably saved my life.
It's also a decision that creates tension in this particular pursuit, as I no longer feel as though I can review anything released under the "Drafthouse Films" imprimatur. That's kind of a tough one, because Drafthouse Films has been hitting home-runs lately. I'm going to cheat on this list with two titles, because, I rationalize, I reviewed both prior to my employment with the Drafthouse. I'm going to cheat on next year's list, too, because I loved and reviewed Spring before Drafthouse Films picked it up. Otherwise, yeah, they're off-limits for me now. I can't trust my objectivity and can't expect you to trust it, either.
2014 was a year of transformation for me. I changed course. My son said to me at one point in the fall that wasn't it great that all of my jobs were movies now, and I had to agree. It was also confusing. Suddenly, movies I'd tend to hate were, if they filled the house, things I looked upon with affection and gratitude. They fed my family, they fed my staff; art had nothing to do with it. Running a theatre challenged the notion of whether or not critics--at least this critic--were as out of touch with the general audience as our own critics accuse us of being. The jury's still out on how smart I am. It's required something of a split in my head. The feeling isn't entirely unpleasant, either. Hard to explain, really.
2014 was a tremendous year for film. I went to Fantastic Fest for the first time to find possibly the best-curated film festival in the country under the sure hand of director Kristen Bell. I don't know how she does it, but she's amazing. I saw more good movies at FF than anywhere else, including one on my list below that still hasn't found a distributor. Decorum says I shouldn't put it on there until it gets a release, but what if it doesn't? What if this helps? It's this year's The Fifth Season for me. I'm not sorry.
My greatest regrets this year? That I missed Xavier Dolan's Mommy at Telluride, and that although I shared a gondola with Andrey Zvyagintsev (during which we crossed a linguistic bridge with the word "selfie"), I missed his Leviathan, too. I'm also in a state of shock that I never got the opportunity to see Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, nor Godard's Goodbye to Language in glorious 3-D as intended. On the other hand, I'm fairly sorry I saw Birdman. It was my single most-anticipated film at Telluride and remains the greatest disappointment of the year for me.
Birdman's subtitle is "the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance," and people still somehow think it's not condescending and/or patronizing. It's a narrated treatise on authenticity, and I find that people who spend this much time telling you what they are tend not to be what they think they are. Birdman has become, very quickly, the movie you're not allowed to criticize this year--which should, frankly, be your first warning. Oscar Wilde said "everything popular is wrong." I realize that it's becoming an annual tradition of quoting the old fellow, putting me at a precarious position when I'm talking about what's pretentious, but Birdman is pretentious.
Special mention: The Rover, Venus in Fur, Locke, Interstellar, Night Moves, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Big Hero 6, National Gallery, Enemy, Cold in July
Meh-ntion: Boyhood, Imitation Game
Unspecial mention: The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, Unbroken, Into the Woods, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman
25. The Guest (d. Adam Wingard)
24. The World of Kanako (d. Tetsuya Nakashima)
23. Foxcatcher (d. Bennett Miller)
Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, and Steve Carell in a kind of In Cold Blood by the director of Capote. It's an American Gothic cast in a brown study that covers the cult of masculinity in American culture in a tidy, beautiful parcel. There are so many things going on in the film that are lost in an almost-exclusive discussion of its performances. Time will out. Foxcatcher is an American masterpiece in that it tells truths about us, going so far as to end in a winter at Valley Forge.
22. Godzilla (d. Gareth Edwards)
A lot of people complained there wasn't enough Godzilla. I don't have a lot of respect for that argument. They missed the point: They were looking for Pacific Rim when it's actually Ozu's Gojira.
21. Starred Up (d. David Mackenzie)
I interviewed David Mackenzie once with Tilda Swinton for his L'atalante update Young Adam, then promptly lost sight of him for a little over a decade. Here he is with rising superstar Jack O'Connell in a performance so blistering that the film's otherwise mostly-standard prison drama is elevated into something strange and true. It has a lot to say about fathers and sons and I'm a sucker for that. Between this and '71 (slated for a 2015 release), O'Connell has earned the stardom that Angelina Jolie's misguided prestige piece Unbroken will give him.
20. Guardians of the Galaxy (d. James Gunn)
I saw this movie more times than any other this year. Six in the theatre alone. It wasn't planned, there were just more people I wanted to take with me. My son was the only constant through every viewing. This is his Star Wars. It's big, stupid, and fun. The girls are pretty in a taboo way, the boys have toys that light up and cover their face, and there's perhaps the first autistic superhero in a giant of a man who doesn't understand sarcasm or figures of speech. It has a great, AM Gold soundtrack, and it's vulnerable to getting pulled apart (Harlan Ellison hated Star Wars, after all, in a piece I couldn't bring myself to read for years) because it's a bit too long, doesn't have a narrative arc--is sloppy, really. I love it because it's an unapologetic, warm mess. Also, I enjoyed watching Chris Pratt turn into Harrison Ford during a Redbone song; it's not unlike that swooping shot running up to John Wayne in Stagecoach: Hey, there he is.
19. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (d. Isao Takahata)
Done in the same simple style as its contemporary Ernest and Celestine, Isao Takahata's picture demonstrates again that the Grave of the Fireflies director has a remarkable way with childhood. It's lyrical and melancholy, working as both allegory and mythology. This is what Into the Woods should have been (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, too), and it does it all in the tale of a poor older couple who discover a supernatural child in bamboo one day. They raise her, saddle her with their projections as parents do, and lose her as parents must. It works the way that fairy tales should--and there's a scene where Princess Kaguya flees a party in her honour that stands as perhaps the single best moment in cinema in 2014.
18. Only Lovers Left Alive (d. Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch's effortlessly-cool vampire flick opens with a rapturous appreciation of vintage guitars and ends with a feeling of cozy, comfortable melancholy. It's about love, as so many of the films of 2014 were--a fascinating throughline emerging in everything from awards-bait garbage like The Theory of Everything to sleeper successes like Beyond the Lights. I want to mention, too, the new Annie, which deals with miscegenation in a really casual, bracing way. Annie's not a good movie, but it's brave. Kudos to Jamie Foxx, who, in 2014, fell in uncommented-upon love with Rose Byrne and gave a wonderful shout-out to Ralph Ellison in his portrayal of Electro in the deeply-underestimated The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But, Only Lovers Left Alive, yes--it has texture, almost; it's extraordinarily lush and detailed in creating its world. The picture's droll in the good sense of "droll," smart as hell, and plays like a T.S. Eliot poem. For all that, it features only the second-best Tilda Swinton performance this year.
17. Coherence (d. James Ward Byrkit)
A genuine mind-bender in a year of purported mind-benders, sometime Gore Verbinski collaborator James Ward Byrkit's modest little chamber piece is this year's +1 or Upstream Color. It's a brilliant sci-fi concept that, with no special effects to speak of and what must have been a miniscule budget, calls up the ghosts of cult flicks past with real verve. Scarier than it has any right to be, economical, incisive, fun, it ranks among the best debut films in a year of celebrated debuts. If nothing else, its cribbing of Cloverfield's "It was a good day" gave me the most delicious tingle.
16. Borgman (d. Alex van Warmerdam)
15. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (d. Matt Reeves)
14. Stranger by the Lake (L'inconnu du lac) (d. Alain Guiraudie)
A Rudy Metzger film on the surface, a Thomas Mann story underneath, it's about longing and carnality; uses Hitchcock correctly in a sentence; and is home to an absolutely haunted last twenty minutes that capture, ineffably, what Stephen King used to capture in his short stories. It's that feeling of the infernal crossing over into the mundane, but cheerfully--which, of course, makes it that much more horrible. It's about the body as a projection of the heart, until it's not, and the heart is well and truly deceived. Alain Guiraudie is one to watch.
13. A Field in England (d. Ben Wheatley)
A Kool-Aid acid trip of a journey into identity and the existential problems of history and masculinity. Absurd and ambitious in equal measure, frightening, and funny. And in its relationship to Vincent Ward's The Navigator, it posits itself as a kind of historical science-fiction. Ben Wheatley is as diverse as any filmmaker working today and with this film clears the path to his adaptation of J.G. Ballard's High Rise, a sort of vertical Snowpiercer with elements of Shivers. That's a match made in heaven.
12. Stray Dogs (d. Tsai Ming-liang)
Taiwanese grandmaster Tsai Ming-liang's second-best film after Goodbye Dragon Inn. It's a challenge, essentially, to the audience to reconfigure expectations, to do something they've been conditioned to do--in a very particular way--in a completely different way. Once the rhythm takes hold, Tsai starts the movie over again, holding shots well into perversity, and if you hang with it for long enough, you suddenly find yourself truly sutured into the saga of two children, their mother, and their father, living in abject poverty awash in torrents of rain. Symbolic and shambolic in equal measure, it's an experience at the movies that redefines the experience.
11. Darkness by Day (d. Martín De Salvo)
10. Edge of Tomorrow (d. Doug Liman)
9. The Strange Little Cat (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen) (d. Ramon Zürcher)
A brilliant debut that challenges the notion of sign/signifier while paying mad homage to Robert Bresson's cinema deconstructions. Plotless, it follows an absolutely ordinary family through its daily paces, while all around are these hints that the universe is subjective and apt, at any moment, to disintegrate on the strength or weakness of some mysterious cohesion. The picture suggests design, in other words, of the type that Tati would have imagined. Like Tati, the feeling that lingers is one of real delight at the potential of the cosmos to surprise. That it's affirming in its deconstructions makes it a rare bird indeed.
8. John Wick (d. Chad Stahelski)
7. We Are the Best! (Vi är bäst!) (d. Lukas Moodysson)
I've always liked Lukas Moodysson, but this is the first film of his that I've loved. It's so observant about adolescence, about those friends you used to have who you thought would be yours forever, about how everything means everything when you're a kid taking those first steps into a larger world. It's jubilant, celebratory of that pain, but not in any nugatory or exploitative sense. Rather, in the essaying of three young girls forming a punk band to protest gym class, We Are the Best! captures the exact temperature of bittersweetness. It's pure. A fight late in the film is resolved with a forced hug on public transportation; it's like any of any number of late nights spent drinking coffee at Denny's engaged in minuscule dramas we didn't know were just practice for the rest of our lives. Miraculous.
6. Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu) (d. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylon's follow-up to his exceptional Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an even more accomplished piece about pride and loneliness. It's about Mr. Aydın (Haluk Bilginer)--wealthy, disliked by everyone, and struggling in a quiet, internal way with that. Though it's been oft-described as Bergman-esque, I'd say it's more Chekhov than Strindberg, an intimate--sometimes suffocatingly so--portrait of a character who is the star of everyone's life but his own. Beautifully, meticulously shot, the picture beguiles and, like so many others of 2014, eventually coaxes a theme about the destructive, inescapable burden of masculinity. So good.
5. Force Majeure (Turist) (d. Ruben Östlund)
4. Blue Ruin (d. Jeremy Saulnier)
3. Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit) (ds. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne)
2. Inherent Vice (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
1. Under the Skin (d. Jonathan Glazer)
10. John Wick (Chad Stahelski)
Number ten with a bullet, or, John Wick-style, two to the face. It figures that one of the best '90s action thrillers would come out in a time of nostalgia. Clean, muscular, and grounded in a true movie-star performance from the ever-stoic Keanu Reeves (surely the human model for gentle robot kung fu master Baymax), this is about as solid as American genre movies got this year.
9. Enemy (d. Denis Villeneuve)
Canada's most self-important auteur got this weird little thriller out of his system last year, filing it away as his actual English-language debut before making the portentous Prisoners--released first--as his real Hollywood calling card. Who could have predicted that the experimental nothing would turn out to be his best film by miles? Enemy employs the same formalist mindfuckery of empty prestige pictures like Incendies, but it turns the filmmaker's pet tropes--unsolvable math equations, fractured timelines, existential mooning--inside-out, playing them as comedy. The result is an unexpectedly smart auto-critique that doubles as a fun, goofy doppelgänger mystery.
8. The Immigrant (d. James Gray)
An old school melodrama grounded in a pair of fantastic, wiry performances (from Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix) that flesh out characters who might have played purely as ethnic types. It doesn't quite match the full-throated second-generation-immigrant drama of Two Lovers, but one need only look to the derivative Francis Ford Coppola-aping theatrics of pretenders like A Most Violent Year to appreciate what Gray pulls off so sensitively in the redemptive closing moments, as surprising as they are preordained.
7. Nymph()maniac, Vols. I and II (d. Lars von Trier)
Nontroversy over the use of professional porn actors aside, Lars von Trier made his best film in years with this unofficial Moll Flanders update, which only barely drags Defoe's seductive, canny storyteller into the modern age. (You could be fooled into thinking it was from another century, for all the nested narratives we get--not to mention the extended screentime devoted to Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler.) If one's interest flags a bit in the dreary second volume, this is still a puckish, clever, and at times deeply sad comic biography, with some top-shelf back-and-forth between LVT staples Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård.
6. Manakamana (ds. Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez)
While Christopher Nolan hoodwinked theatres into dusting off their 70mm projectors for his visually prosaic Interstellar, these graduates from Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab (coming off the more bullish Leviathan) quietly delivered a more impressive entry in the cinema of attractions. Unfolding via a series of fixed tableaux set in a cable car suspended over the titular Hindu temple in Nepal, Manakamana offers more bang-for-your-buck unearthly images than any sci-fi spectacle this year, and more human drama to boot.
5. Force Majeure (Turist) (d. Ruben Östlund)
4. Gone Girl (d. David Fincher)
The smartest black comedies about marital discord since Stanley Kubrick's poisonous Eyes Wide Shut were frosty this year. Gone Girl saw David Fincher flexing his under-utilized comic muscles in a nasty yarn about marriage as a shared hallucination between partners, while Ruben Östlund put his upper-class Swedish family through trial-by-avalanche and found their heroic exterior selves wanting. You wouldn't call either of these insights new, but who cares? Nothing made me laugh harder this year than the way both filmmakers made punchlines out of uncanny toys: a robot dog and a remote control drone, respectively.
3. The Strange Little Cat (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen) (d. Ramon Zürcher)
The rare experimental film that's equally enjoyable and formally impressive, Ramon Zürcher's astonishing debut is as beguiling as it is tough to get a grip on. Although the premise--a nice middle-class German brood gathers for a dinner in the family home--suggests a simple domestic romp, Zürcher's off-kilter framing, cutting, and sound design make mysteries out of even the most mundane rituals.
2. Inherent Vice (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Not just the first straight Pynchon adaptation, with apologies to Alex Ross Perry's Impolex, but an equally droll and sad, impressionistic B-side to The Master's more intensely focused riff on postwar trauma and self-help. Working in a similar tragicomic register to Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson outdoes himself here: This is at once an uproarious ensemble comedy and a melancholy two-hander about a pair of dicks set adrift in the early-'70s, the tone set perfectly by the concerned, wizened hippie drawl of Joanna Newsom.
1. National Gallery (d. Frederick Wiseman)
Arguably Wiseman's most indispensable institutional profile since High School, and no less interested in what it means to educate and be educated. You could think of it as treating the outside of the way the British museum interfaces with the public while Wiseman's previous film, At Berkeley, looked at the inside baseball of what it took to keep one of America's pre-eminent universities financially solvent. Much of the three-hour running time is spent listening to gallery workers pitch the art to audiences ranging from children to lay culturati, and it's a testament both to their rhetorical polish and to the filmmaker's taste in singling out great material that none of these lectures ever feels less than absorbing.
10. Cold in July (d. Jim Mickle)
There are better films that didn't make my Top 10, films with less of a shaggy-dog narrative (not Inherent Vice) and more period authenticity (definitely Inherent Vice), but they don't have Sam Shepard and Don Johnson as old war buddies taking on the "Dixie mafia." That's something I didn't even know I wanted, and now I hardly want anything but.
9. Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu) (d. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
8. Force Majeure (Turist) (d. Ruben Östlund)
Neither of this year's two best hotel movies were set in Budapest. Winter Sleep fascinates me just as much for its Shire-meets-Aunt Beru's place in Star Wars production design as for its hopelessly pedantic protagonist, an innkeeper who more or less owns everyone he knows. And even at 206 minutes, it's not as languorous as you might expect. Force Majeure, meanwhile, is easily my favourite vacation movie without "National Lampoon's" in the title.
7. Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme) (d. Xavier Dolan)
6. Mommy (d. Xavier Dolan)
A pair of quasi-thrillers (one, Tom at the Farm, certainly less "quasi" than the other), ferocious in their immediacy, from the prolific Québécois wunderkind. A lot of my colleagues dislike Xavier Dolan because he's the worst kind of brat: the kind who delivers on the burden of proof. I personally find his aspect-ratio games a little telling of his youth (though they lead to one transcendent moment in Mommy), but his formal poise nonetheless puts the shame and lie to the Mumblecore movement.
5. Foxcatcher (d. Bennett Miller)
This is a musical, with wrestling matches instead of songs--each one complete with its own narrative arc that repositions the apex of a love triangle between two brothers and the millionaire ornithologist perv who watches them like they're rare birds. Not a factual film--indeed not, if Mark Schultz's recent Twitter tantrums are any indication--but a truthful one, especially about the creeping loneliness of exceptionalism.
4. National Gallery (d. Frederick Wiseman)
An improbably riveting three-hour documentary about moving that picture a little more to the left, now to the right, now back a bit...there, that's got it. Roughly-speaking, the film I'd hoped Museum Hours would be, starting with the fact that it's in focus.
3. Tales of the Grim Sleeper (d. Nick Broomfield)
No stranger to serial-killer profiles, Nick Broomfield was drawn to the story of Lonnie Franklin, the so-called "Grim Sleeper" of South Central Los Angeles, who was estimated to have killed dozens if not hundreds of black women over the course of two decades. But this is the rare documentary of Broomfield's to not build to a confrontation with its de facto villain. Instead, Broomfield seeks out the stories of these vanished women, along the way proving that Doughboy was right when he said they either don't know, don't show, or don't care what's happening in the 'hood. ("They" being, in this particular case, the LAPD.) It's almost difficult to conceive of a timelier movie, Selma notwithstanding. Gripping; hopeful.
2. Welcome to New York (d. Abel Ferrara)
Breaking protocol to cite a film that doesn't seem to have North American distribution yet, because it played around the globe and on the Internet in 2014. Abel Ferrara's most intoxicating work in years, maybe decades, Welcome to New York docudramatizes the Dominique Strauss-Kahn "affair" far more inquisitively than exploitatively. A man of Jabba-like proportions and Caligula appetites, Gérard Depardieu's Devereaux is a pitiable monster who abandons his youthful ideals because he can't reconcile them with the power accorded him as head of the World Bank. DSK and wife Anne Sinclair (marvellously embodied by Jacqueline Bisset) have understandably denounced the film, but they're fortunate to have in Ferrara someone with sympathy for the devil.
1. Under the Skin (d. Jonathan Glazer)
The new Full Metal Jacket, in that everyone rags on the second half of the film, but that's the part that sticks with--and feels particularly zeitgeisty--to me, as a woman is objectified, taken with entitlement, then vilified once debased. A staggeringly insightful essay on the power of beauty and the vulnerability of the exotic, fittingly contained in the vessel of a cerebral but often viscerally terrifying sci-fi masterpiece.
CONSENSUS: FILM FREAK CENTRAL'S TOP 5 OF 2014
1. Under the Skin
2. Inherent Vice
3. National Gallery
4. Force Majeure
5. The Strange Little Cat