Monday, December 29, 2014
My Favorite Films of 2014
I watched more films in 365 calendar days than ever before this year (257, if my Letterboxd account is a reliable yardstick), but alas, the pull of a good repertory print proved more persuasive than ever, so my engagement with the year's hot new releases remained half-hearted and decidedly selective. That said, by nature of reviewing for Slant Magazine in a newcomer role (which is to say, I don't get first crack at stuff like Gone Girl), I did get a privileged view of some of the less-travelled byways of 2014's American release slate—making me a trusted, Rotten Tomatoes-approved source on embarrassing crap like Louder than Words and entertaining crap like Wolves. (Though writing about such trifles is a welcome challenge, I don't consider my work in this capacity to be a long-term hustle.) Speaking of Slant, my "official" year-end list was already filed and tabulated for the purposes of the site's awards festivities, and although it was published on The House Next Door I've stayed hush-hush about it because I consider an early December weigh-in to be unavoidably provisional. If anything, the lazy weeks leading up to Christmas are for me the best time to catch up with titles deemed "essential" for one reason or another.
So, now that the year's just two days away from being history, here are, in as close-to-comprehensive a manner as possible, my favorite films of 2014. When applicable, bolded titles link to my reviews, and unhelpfully specific blurbs are pulled from said reviews and are marked as such with quotations. One-week NYC theatrical rules apply, meaning two old films released for the first time in the US this year (labelled with a *) make the cut.
25. The Heart Machine (Wigon, US)
"Were The Heart Machine attached only to Cody's perspective, it would stand as a sturdy step-by-step portrayal of digital detective work. What gears it toward a richer rumination on 21st century psychology is its detours into Virginia's story. Prior to her emergence on screen, she's an enigma too easily assumed of cruel intentions. Vignettes from her life, however, reveal her as a girl deeply apprehensive about merging physical intimacy with emotional intimacy, a complicated psychological spectrum rendered with a typically virtuosic display of extroverted introversion by [Kate Lyn] Sheil." Speaking of Sheil, I also covered her performance as part of Slant's Best Performances of 2014.
24. Abuse of Weakness (Breillat, France)
"Like a nightmare, the film opens immediately on the first stirrings of Maud’s stroke. A few cuts later, she’s pinned to a hospital bed, her jaw slung out of shape like silly putty and her left hand curled back in an unnatural direction. Huppert is uncomfortably spot-on in this depiction of physical and mental strain, using her body with great expressiveness even if it means letting the camera ignore her face altogether, as in one chilling close-up that monumentalizes her right hand’s effort to realign its left counterpart. The impact of this bodily entrapment lingers over into Maud’s subsequent scenes back home in her nondescript Belgian flat, where she stumbles around with a hunchback’s gait and struggles to integrate her left arm into mundane domestic behaviors."
23. The Immigrant (Gray, US)
Twice in The Immigrant, director James Gray shows his female lead Marion Cotillard in the foreground looking away from the camera towards the center of the frame, and in both instances her point of view lands on her conflicted caretaker Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) while he organizes behind-the-scenes deals to satiate whatever existential hunger burns inside her character, the Polish immigrant Ewa. These shots—both photographed with shallow depth of field, but with focus measured for Ewa herself (so, the back of her head essentially) rather than he subject of her gaze—take place at Ellis Island and have been situated by Gray at opposite ends of the film so as to make clear two key ideas: that the simultaneously affectionate and deeply exploitative Bruno is the prime mover and shaker of Ewa’s American destiny, and yet in spite of this, Ewa is still fundamentally in control. Gray’s compositional and focal decisions establish that Bruno’s efforts are pivotal, but the agency is all Ewa’s to follow or dismiss them. It’s this balanced, thoughtful dramatic treatment, ever so slightly leaning in Ewa’s favor though still tragically sympathetic to Bruno’s ailments, that gives The Immigrant such gravitas. It all culminates in that bisected final shot, the greatness of which I discussed as part of Slant's Best Film Scenes of 2014.
22. The Dance of Reality (Jodorowsky, Mexico)
The Holy Mountain and El Topo were kaleidoscopic ensemble pieces whose many strange characters essentially represented mouthpieces for different ideological approaches to life, at times making it difficult to discern Jodorowsky’s own voice through all the noise. The Dance of Reality, on the other hand, finds the director literally stepping into frame to talk to the audience about his feelings, casting his son as his younger self and constructing a more discernible narrative progression. There are a lot of presumed reasons for this directness—old-age nostalgia, post-filmmaking-hiatus eagerness—but the one that I’m most curious about is the shift to digital cinematography. We’ve been in something of a Golden Age with regards to older filmmakers (Ruiz, Resnais, Breillat, etc.) fruitfully engaging with contemporary technology, which offers an opportunity to work through ideas on set in ways that approximate real time more closely than the stop-and-go rhythms of celluloid production. If Fellini’s Amarcord was an example of a man re-building the world of his memories from the ground up as if to preserve it in amber, The Dance of Reality (though springing forth from a similar urge for self-mythology) shows an attempt to unload everything, for better or worse, and sift through it in real time. (There's more where this text came from, but it was never published anywhere. Maybe when I revisit the film I'll get it all out.)
21. Starred Up (Mackenzie, UK)
"Mackenzie’s dramatic motor is Eric Love (newcomer Jack O’Connell, looking like a cross between all-American bad boy Marshall 'Eminem' Mathers and seasoned Prison Break cell-dweller Wentworth Miller), a belligerent hothead who’s just been transferred from juvenile hall to a rougher adult jail under the confidence that his dangerous behavior might be tamed alongside more full-bodied neighbors. If anything, the reality is the opposite. Under Mackenzie’s unwaveringly present-tense gaze—the film opens in media res and doesn’t belabor backstory—Eric is characterized less as a problem to be a solved than a force of life to simply be dealt with."
20. What Now? Remind Me (Pinto, Portugal)
"The occasion for this 'documentary' is the launching of a yearlong experimental treatment for Pinto’s Hepatitis C, a disease he endures quietly, ruminatively and often with burdening sorrow in the plaintive nowhere of his countryside home, but the uncertainty of the treatment is merely a catalyst for an all-access pass into Pinto’s freewheeling mind, in which he contemplates the rhythms of his daily life, his relationship with his husband Nuno, his career as an esteemed sound mixer working alongside such Portuguese giants as Raúl Ruíz and João César Monteiro, the state of Portugal past and present, and the outer and inner cosmos."
19. Nymphomaniac (Von Trier, Denmark) (Parts I and II. Also more here)
"The larger, more daring and resonant dislodged expectation at the heart of Nymphomaniac is its very act of aligning its sympathies—proudly but thankfully without a touch of liberal self-congratulation---with a protagonist who ultimately embraces the allegedly dishonorable impulses that form the core of her identity. As damaging and near-traumatic repercussions pile up in response to Joe’s behavior, von Trier manages the dual achievement of simultaneously refusing to reprimand her for her perceived indiscretions and pledging to remain a watchful witness to their troubling side effects. The result is a film that looks not to individual forces as agents of social problems but rather to systemic injustices."
18. Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie, France)
Initial lukewarm response was worked out in a podcast and news of a later reevaluation was planted here. Then I saw some other Guiraudie films, reviewed The King of Escape, saw Guiraudie crack jokes at a Q&A, realized the guy's The Man, and came to terms with the fact that Stranger by the Lake is awesome.
17. Level Five (Marker, France)*
"Do androids dream of the casualties of Okinawa? The answer excavated by Chris Marker is a melancholy no. Though returning to the director’s signature theme of collective historical amnesia, Level Five introduces a completely outside-the-box framing device that makes intuitive sense within the context of Marker’s restless investigatory bent: a woman (Catherine Belkodjha) is working on programming a PC game that allows the user to replay the events of World War II’s final battle, and her search for historical context and understanding becomes the movie’s structural guide, while the failure of the computer to account for the complexities of the tragedy represents its layered cautionary thread about the digitization of memory."
16. Listen Up Philip (Perry, US)
Can't say I'm as taken by Listen Up Philip as so many seem to be (I find myself nodding along to Mike D'Angelo's Letterboxd rant more than Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's loving appraisal), but I am excited by the continued leaps in maturity that have defined Alex Ross Perry's short career thus far, not to mention the consistent tone and worldview. This is identifiably a Perry film, complete with suffocatingly sloppy yet at times strangely elegant handheld work (courtesy of regular DP Sean Price Williams) and a dramatic predilection towards ugly, mean-spirited interpersonal relations between narcissists (Perry’s less a descendent of mumblecore than of John Cassavettes and Phillippe Garrel), and that's no small praise for a director with just three features under his belt. It’s also the best thing he’s made yet, though I’m hesitant to get too grandiose about it, in part because the film’s mode of delivery is so direct and straightforward and its ambitions are so seemingly modest and concentrated. Still, it tackles destructive male egocentrism head on and that's something of which our culture needs more. Also, its score is an instant classic.
15. Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (Klinger, US)
"During one key scene, Klinger’s camera frames his subjects in intimate profile—sideways glances, as opposed to direct eye-line views, are used frequently and stress the director’s perspective as a separate (but still important) third wheel in the comprehension process—and pans into the negative space between the two men. Metaphorically speaking, it’s this space—the air in which the baseball travels back and forth—that Klinger’s film is exploring. What kind of synergy can occur between two artists who work in the same medium but in disparate modes? From what recesses of imagination and theory do the moments of crossover in Linklater and Benning's films emerge?"
14. Gebo and the Shadow (Oliveira, Portugal)
"Though Gebo may scoff at what's become of his son, the film ultimately honors João’s perspective as a corrective to the stagnation of the household; Brandão’s story, after all, is on some level about confronting that which cannot be seen or which refuses to be seen—the shadow of the title. Oliveira’s visual strategy is significant in this respect: An assertive use of static, frontal two-shots—often held for great lengths of screen time—brings to mind the proscenium arch of a stage, the people contained within the image reacting to things offscreen as a theater actor would to things only imagined in the darkened void of the auditorium...It becomes apparent that Gebo’s hovel is a turn-of-the-century version of Plato’s Cave, a little outpost of self-perpetuated existential inertia passed on to the viewer as ruthless optical imprisonment."
13. Norte, The End of History (Diaz, Philippines)
"The film, as Diaz suggested in a post-screening press conference, indirectly charts the rise of fascism in the Philippines through a young, impassioned but ultimately misguided intellectual named Fabian (Sid Lucero), a surrogate for former Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos, whose family name is still the country’s reigning fascist moniker. Diaz never makes this connection clear in the film, and the resulting ambiguity is preferable; like the work of Béla Tarr, Diaz’s film reflects significant movements in his country’s recent history in strikingly oblique ways." Also discussed here and here.
12. Stop the Pounding Heart (Minervini, US/Italy)
"Like a significant portion of low-budget, serious-minded independent work taking place today, Stop the Pounding Heart falls squarely in the trend of on-location, non-actor-employing, process-oriented hybrid filmmaking. Thankfully, though, it bares no disingenuous traces of bandwagon-hopping. Himself born into an Italian working-class family, Minervini has palpable affection for his subjects and refuses to place them under an unflattering editorial light. 'For me, to be an observer, that implies letting go of control and giving creative power to the other people involved,' he stressed in a recent Filmmaker Magazine profile, hinting at a sense of diplomacy that plays out in the film’s relaxed longueurs and patient build-up toward narrative revelations."
11. Maidan (Loznitsa, Ukraine)
"Maidan’s descent into fiery, full-scale horror is swift and brutal, signaled by little more than an undemonstrative title card noting Yanukovych’s passing of anti-protest laws. The previously communal atmosphere is now overlaid with a sinister edge as rows of shielded riot-squad members encroach upon the square, compulsive corresponding force from the more-defiant civilians following not far behind. Explosions echo the fireworks from earlier, while a climactic group rendition of a Ukrainian folk song (captured in a composition that mimics the movie’s opening shot) delivers the final emotional gut punch. It’s in such structural reverberations that Loznitsa shows his Frederick Wiseman-esque skill in crafting narrative from months of observational footage and accumulating motifs in near-subliminal fashion."
10. The Homesman (Jones, US)
"Countless westerns have begun with unpopulated landscape shots set to fawning orchestral music, but there’s something especially momentous being implied in the lengths of Jones’s images (lensed attractively by Rodrigo Prieto), their sturdiness, and their stitching via dissolves: This is not just a location in which to set a film, but The Mythic West in all its rough beauty and persistent indifference to human intervention. Jones’s relationship to this landscape is not a romantic one; if anything, given the palpable physical toll it takes on his characters, he recognizes the land as an unrealistic place for human lives to flourish. And yet, in The Homesman, even more than the wearying Three Burials, Jones sees the west as a place where psychological integrity is best tested and illuminated."
9. Two Days, One Night (Dardennes, Belgium)
"In Two Days, One Night, the perspective is strong and clear: Life can be a constant string of challenges, but what’s less vital than succeeding against those hardships is surviving them with dignity intact. It is only when Sandra’s perception of the rightness or wrongness of her pursuit wavers that her spirit seeps out (and Cotillard’s finest achievement in an overall magisterial performance lies in conveying this intangible shift from weary presence to detached specter, a change that is really all about careful eyelid and upper-back control—both slump imperceptibly forward when the burden gets too heavy). Two Days, One Night’s ultimate conclusion is only a downer from the most literal-minded, plot-driven perspective; in every other significant way, it’s a profound personal victory."
8. Under the Skin (Glazer, US/UK)
Under the Skin is the kind of movie that begs for one of those catchy WTF elevator pitches ("Roeg and Kubrick MATING IN SPACE and having a Dreyer BABY, dude") even though any such characterization would probably be a stupid simplification. Glazer's the real deal, and his filmmaking here (a creepy blend of crafty high-end digital effects and lo-fi hidden camera hijinks) doesn't look or feel quite like anything else that's influenced it. I need to watch this again, but until I do it's sticking with me in the form of Mica Levi's intoxicating theme melody.
7. Manakamana (Spray and Velez, US)
"One of the feats of Manakamana is in democratizing the frame; despite the film’s self-imposed limitations, one has the desire to look at one thing and everything simultaneously. Do I look at the contours of the elderly woman’s skin or the lush vegetation passing by outside, the goat ass staring me in the face or the texture of the steel encasing the animal? You’d think that after two hours spent on one cable car service, a fairly comprehensive familiarity with the film’s location would be inevitable, and to a certain extent, one of the film’s pleasures is developing an awareness of the tangible particulars of its rhythm to such an extent that it’s possible to know what’s coming next, a relative certainty that contrasts the genuine unpredictability of the human subjects. But even this supposed stability is tested..."
6. Night Moves (Reichardt, US)
Shot for shot, cut for cut, etc. etc., the work of Kelly Reichardt has few equals in contemporary American narrative film directing, and Night Moves in particular puts her facility as a pace-setter and mood-builder to the test. Focusing on the carefully choreographed detonation of a dam and the unexpected repercussions for a small clan of radical environmentalists, it's her plottiest film to date, but the emphasis remains on the intimate levels of psychology (obsessive and paranoid), place (still the Pacific Northwest, now the dense coniferous woodlands of Oregon), and the passage of time (every minute here being a matter of grave danger). In its use of offscreen sound and its selective framing, the film suggests at times Lucrecia Martel, if not Hitchcock—a mode that Reichardt's very adept at transcribing to her own off-the-grid milieu. For more on this one, I'd recommend Adam Nayman.
5. Force Majeure (Östlund, Sweden)
"All of this might seem a facile platform for Östlund to assert superiority over the material; indeed, one could imagine the same central premise retooled for a super-cerebral smackdown of the pathetic pile that is the human race. But Östlund is too playful a filmmaker to succumb to such finger-wagging didacticism. The largely frosty Force Majeure is repeatedly thawed by a sense of humor that suggests Fellini on downers—reined-in burlesque, in other words—and a philosophical interest in the role of chance, so powerful a force in life as to upset even the film’s own controlled surface (as it does in a sublimely amusing moment that fleetingly assumes the point of view of a remote-controlled flying toy at the most inopportune time). Despite the film’s overarching Scandinavian austerity—Östlund’s shots rarely move for fear of displacing the careful merging of compositional lines with the corners of the 2:35:1 frame—it’s also cinematographically in tune with its characters at pivotal moments in ways that suggest a sharp directorial sensitivity." Also blurbed about this for Slant's year-end list.
4. A Summer's Tale (Rohmer, France)*
Freakily on-point about the delusions, white lies, and contradictory gestures that come with being a young man with romantic options...we're talking about a 76-year-old dude reflecting back on twentysomething recklessness, after all. Affectionate, then critical, then ultimately melancholy, A Summer's Tale maintains a close scrutiny of its central self-absorbed male even as it invokes, as is Rohmer's wont, the incredible spectrum of feelings that can be attached to a single summer vacation. More thoughts to come.
3. Boyhood (Linklater, US)
Somewhere down the line when I revisit Boyhood I will write about it, but I'm not sure anyone needed another rave about the movie back in August, not to mention another gushy remembrance timed to the annual voting rush. However, that's not to say I don't think there's a lot more to be said about Boyhood once the public narrative about the film dissolves and only the film itself remains. The 12-year production is not an insubstantial or purely gimmicky fact; understanding how the film was made and how Linklater's career has jointly developed offers a layer of behind-the-scenes maturation that I find almost as moving as the onscreen maturation. Boyhood is not Linklater's zenith of directing, that's for sure, but its occasional messiness is inextricable from the process by which it captures the overwhelming intricacies of a single life. Also, in a more selfish way I warmed quickly to Mason's narrative because it echoes my own trajectory through life in certain key ways, right down to an obscure canvas coat that he apparently also scrounged up from a Salvation Army discount rack when he was 16.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, US)
"The Grand Budapest Hotel represents the logical, highly advanced live-action extension of the frame-by-frame thinking of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Animation seemed to really get Anderson’s gears churning, forcing him to think on an atomic level more than ever before; every frame counted in the film’s mathematical design. If Moonrise Kingdom, aesthetically Anderson’s loosest movie since Bottle Rocket, was a slight move away from that level of control, TGBH finds him back on that wavelength in an extravagant big-budget context. Anderson may be orchestrating the movement of bodies and objects rather than miniatures, but the dexterity of his direction is no less staggering; this is a film that feels timed to a metronome."
1. Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan)
"Idiosyncratic, filled with mystery, and auteurist to the core, the film feels like a fusion of so many different threads running through Tsai’s career, even as it points in some new directions that may sadly go unexplored if the director’s self-declared retirement is really on the horizon. There’s the palpable fixation on water and leaking interiors, the focus on poverty-stricken drudgery, the use of song as a coping device, the distinctive framing (ever-so-slightly downward-facing, rectilinear but rarely symmetrical), the employment of absurdist set pieces wherein Tsai’s regular leading man Lee Kang-sheng becomes a kind of performance act, and the near-absence of any dialogue amidst atmospheric longueurs. However, the film’s bifurcated narrative structure—a fairly straightforward depiction of homeless familial anxiety and its dark, cavernous mirror—contains intriguing and entirely unpredictable curiosities." More for Slant here.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Closed Curtain, Coherence, Dear White People, Gone Girl, Inherent Vice, Jimmy P., Leviathan, Love is Strange, Lucy, A Most Wanted Man, Non-Stop, Northern Light, Only Lovers Left Alive, Song of the Sea, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, Tale of Princess Kaguya, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga
Blind Spots: American Sniper, Birdman, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Goodbye to Language (waiting for 3D), Low Down, Memphis, National Gallery, Wild