Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Top Ten Films of 2014, Plus One

It has been a rough year personally, and there were times when I honestly wasn't sure I was going to have a list at all.  However, I made my compromises and feel pretty good about the results below.  There were so many films that I found admirable, but just didn't connect with me on a personal level.  That was my biggest requirement this time out.  A film that made my top ten had to be something that made an impact, that was memorable, that I felt strongly about and was ready to champion.  I don't think I was as diverse in my viewing choices as I've been in the past, but I took every opportunity to chase down the titles I felt strongly about.  And I got better about letting things go.

My criteria for eligibility require that a film must have been released in its own home country during 2013, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count.  Picks are unranked and listed in no particular order, previously posted reviews are linked where available, and the "Plus One" spot is reserved for the best film of the previous year that I didn't manage to see in time for the last list.  Here we go.

The Grand Budapest Hotel - I've always admired Wes Anderson's films, but I found the prickly characters often difficult to connect to.  Not so with "Grand Budapest," where Ralph Fiennes' lovable M. Gustave leads a massive, wonderful ensemble through Anderson's love letter to pre-war Europe and the early days of cinema.  There's no end to the cinematic delights here - the picture book settings, the slapstick humor, and the delightful score are only the most obvious.  However, what really made the movie for me was its underlying melancholy and affection for a bygone era.

Under the Skin - By turns frightening, suspenseful, and transcendent, this is easily the best film about alien invaders - or really the whole idea of being something "other" - that I've seen in ages.  Scarlett Johanssen's performance is fearless and essential.  Mica Levi's score is an eerie masterpiece.  However, it's Jonathan Glazer's impressionistic visuals, use of candid encounters, and intense, merciless direction that give the film its teeth.  After a string of high profile disappointments this year in the genre, I'm glad to see art house science-fiction continuing to reach new heights.

Gone Girl - Director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn deliver a twisted psychological thriller with plenty to say about gender politics and the dangers of the 24 hour news cycle.  Ben Affleck gets his best role in ages as the imperfect husband under suspicion, but it's Rosamund Pike who totally dominates the film as the unforgettable Amazing Amy.  It's so gratifying to see a film that's so intelligent and so insightful about the nature of men and women, even as it gleefully feeds the audience's appetites for lurid tales of psycho exes and perfect relationships gone very bad.

The Babadook - It's always great to find a horror film that takes care to be artful and inventive as it delivers its thrills.  There's nothing particularly new about "The Babadook," where a strained mother and her troubled young son do battle against a fairy-tale monster, but Jennifer Kent's execution is exceptional.  The chilling picture book narrative, the dreamy transition scenes, the sound design - there are so many little touches that help to give the film its impact.  Special kudos for lead actress Essie Davis, particularly in the climactic scenes where she undergoes a chilling transformation.  

Two Days One Night - The Dardennes brothers make such deceptively simple films about characters in terrible, but all too familiar predicaments, usually involving family troubles or economic crisis.  Here, Marion Cotillard's Sandra visits over a dozen co-workers one by one, trying to win their support to save her job.  You'd think this would become repetitive, but each encounter is different and unpredictable.  Cotillard's performance becomes a driving force.  It's a good reminder that creating powerful, moving human drama needs little more than the right actors with the right opportunities.

Winter Sleep - Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan's excellent character study of a petty, vain landlord who exerts considerable influence over a small town and its inhabitants.  At over three hours in length, the pace is slow and the atmosphere languid, but the film builds to a series of incredibly tense confrontations that force the characters to examine their lives and relationships.  The unhurried, natural way that the story unfolds through meetings and conversations helps to give the story and characters an uncommon sense of cohesion.  This one is challenging, but worth the effort.

What We Do in the Shadows - The vampire spoof we've all been waiting for, courtesy of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.  Featuring a quartet of desperately uncool vampire roommates living in New Zealand, "Shadows" delves into all aspects of the vampire mythos from the bloodsucking to the minions, and holds them up for sublime ridicule.  It also gets in some good jabs at documentary filmmaking conventions, male group dynamics, and werewolves.  This is yet another case of a band of indie filmmakers with a miniscule budget putting Hollywood's best efforts to shame.

Mommy - My favorite sequence of the year is the final montage of "Mommy," where the title character fantasizes about her troubled son growing up and leaving all his problems behind.  It's one of several beautiful, joyous moments that stand out in a heart-tugging melodrama about an unstable mother-son pair trying to learn to get along.  It's a marvel how director Xavier Dolan can evoke such heightened, spectacular cinema from a combination of art house aesthetics, trailer-trash kitsch, and overplayed 90s pop songs.  And the trio of thunderous performances certainly don't hurt either.

Selma - A picture of the Civil Rights movement during the famous events in Selma, Alabama, rather than the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. biopic many were expecting.   Ava DuVernay includes many different points of view, many different voices and perspectives.  It's a refreshingly inclusive, thoughtful approach that allows the film to explore many of the smaller stories from Selma and address the controversies and ambiguities of the movement in greater detail.  David Oyelowo surely gives us one of the most nuanced and balanced portrayals of Dr. King ever put to film.

The Salt of the Earth - Wim Wenders turns his camera on a photographer, Sebastiao Salgado, whose work documenting the human condition and the natural world has spanned decades and continents.  It's an often sobering, but enlightening introduction to a truly remarkable man and the power of social photography.  The documentary often feels like a collaboration between Salgado and Wenders, because the most powerful images are indisputably Salgado's, but the strength and clarity of the film's narrative adds immeasurably to their weight.

Plus One

The Tale of Princess Kaguya - Likely the final masterpiece of Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata, and it's a stunner.  Despite the classical brush painting style and the 10th century setting, this is a decidedly modern retelling of the Japanese folktale.  Our lovely heroine wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary girl rather than the princess she's destined to become.  She strains at the bounds of propriety, and sometimes at the very brushstrokes that make up her delicate, painted world.  The film feels like the end of an era, a sad but fitting farewell.

Honorable Mentions

Dear White People
The Double
Inherent Vice
The Edge of Tomorrow
A Most Violent Year
Mistaken For Strangers
Song of the Sea


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