Much of the discourse regarding 2014 has lamented how it was a year of decline: a decline in revenue, a decline in parts for women, and most ludicrous of all, a decline in our freedom speech. These superficial statements fester like a cancer and propagate among media outlets, inundating the masses into accepting them as fact. What was the big film news of 2014? The ra-ra-ra of American faux-patriotism following the would-they or wouldn’t-they release of The Interview. Why was there such clamor over this when Laura Poitras’ CITIZENFOUR submitted a far more audacious and palpable threat against our civil liberties?
Or perhaps it was the continued reign of terror that comes from contemporary superhero films, where studios exercise the possibilities of being in the business of anticipation - building anticipation for a product that, regardless of its quality, is sure to sell. It’s a wonder that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood managed to have any sort of profile amid the year’s news, though more often than not its coverage emphasized its perceived novelty rather than the quality of the film itself.
Yet amid the echo chamber of news outlets regurgitating the same story on the (perceived) diminishing quality of the films of 2014, I consider what Richard Linklater told the Chicago Reader earlier this July: “You realize there's never been a bad decade of cinema or even a bad year, once you go through the number of great films worldwide.” A true statement, though audiences must make the effort to seek these films out.
The following are ten excellent films. All but one received a wide release; they all deserve your time.
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
It’s a sure bet that anyone highlighting the absurdity of Steve Carell’s prosthetic nose as a point of ridicule in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher has nothing important to say about the film. For Foxcatcher is a film of stark and searing imagery, with the contours of the male frame being the focal point of examination. In Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo, Miller uncovers an American myth in a cutthroat way, imparting a cold and literary distance between viewer and audience. The du Pont story is but an isolated event amid many. For every narrative about the grandiosity of achieving the American Dream, there are those who strive for it yet never, ever achieve it. But it’s in Miller’s technique that we see this deconstruction visualized - the film could’ve been stripped of any of its sparse dialogue and it still would’ve achieved its sobering tonal and thematic intent. (Full Review Here)
The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher)
Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat was a revelatory experience that I haven’t gotten over since my screening of the film in March. Within the film’s confined quarters, one can see the mechanics of cinema at its simplest form exercised to its fringe limits. No film this year was as visually succinct or audibly audacious. One can pinpoint consequence from frame to frame, motivating its audience to take careful note of the shifting visual space. You become enveloped within the film’s editing patterns and begin to understand where the film may be heading, up until a figurative (and literal) slap to the face vaults you back to reality. (Full Review Here)
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The premise is as cruel as any horror film and just as absurd, but in Two Days, One Night Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne submit yet another master-class exercise in predatory capitalism. The effortlessness found in their style, their fly-on-the-wall approach, may suggest disengagement with the material. That couldn’t be further from the truth, particularly in how it pertains to the heavily structured nature of Two Days, One Night. The mechanics of seeing Sandra (Marion Cotillard) going from home to home, pleading with her coworkers to refuse a bonus in exchange for keeping her on the payroll, are narratively simple to follow. But it’s in how the Dardenne’s frame these sequences that are most interesting: when Sandra receives a phone call from a coworker insuring that she has their vote, the Dardennes fix the shot on Cotillard’s slender frame, slowly going in for the close-up as she receives the positive news. That scene amounts to everything in the film - how important Cotillard is to defining the dramatic stakes, how the Dardennes amplify that through technique, and the impact (and rarity) of a kind gesture. (Full Review Here)
Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
There’s one great sustained shot in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood that I’ve never seen discussed but ultimately serves as the most important sequence in the film. It involves Mason (Ellar Coltrane), now a teenager, walking after school. He cuts through an alleyway when a young girl on a bicycle meets him. From the beginning of the alleyway to its end Linklater sustains the shot as the two converse about school, books, girlfriends, and boyfriends. And that’s it. The girl never appears again and Mason continues on his way. There’s no immediate narrative consequence to this conversation, other than knowing a little more about the boy that is slowly growing into a young man. But it’s the sort of moment that one can imagine clinging to for a lifetime, where the brief interaction between boy and girl is just a little more naïve, a little less awkward, and ultimately free of pretenses and judgments. It’s a genuine and tender moment that underscores the film’s central thesis of living the moment - you never know what memories are the ones you’ll hold on to most. (Full Review Here)
Buzzard (Joel Potrykus)
If the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night responds to predatory capitalism with a pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, then Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard responds with a middle finger. The titular buzzard is a young man named Marty (Joshua Burge) who roams through the film’s florescent office, dank basement, and ruins of Detroit like a scavenger, consuming any and all resources along the way. The narrative of a deplorable young man exercising his deplorable-ness wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it weren’t for Potrykus’ considerable skill as a craftsman. He constructs a film with a tonal command for the surreal, swiftly moving from sequence to sequence with a sense of anxious anticipation. The film balances its surreal aspects within a grimy reality, convincingly conveying the plights of a young man simply surviving in a barren wasteland stripped of opportunities. It’s oppressive but damn funny, surreal yet gritty and natural. It’s a pile of contradictions of considerable impact. But most of all: it is a big deal. (Full Review Here)
Clouds of Sils Maria (Oliver Assayas)
Like the triptych of actors in Foxcatcher, Oliver Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is anchored by the presence of three incredible performers. With Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz, Assayas deconstructs the concept of an actress, the anxiety that comes from aging, and the subsequent stress that comes with having to reevaluate one’s frailty. In describing the film, both here and in previous pieces, I fear that I haven’t conveyed just how impressively staged the film is on a purely cinematic level. For a film that’s largely about the insular process of acting and how an actor must encapsulate a character, there may be the suggestion that the film inhabits a more stageplay temperament than anything wholly cinematic. In Assayas’ hands however, he submits an immeasurably tight technical work, highlighted by an incredible eye for blocking and sound design. Combined with yet another one of his dense scripts, Clouds of Sils Maria is the sort of conversation piece of a film that can be dissected for all of its different components yet understood as meaning something entirely different from viewer to viewer. Much like the film itself, the picture changes shape depending on where you’re standing - the mark of a great film. (Capsule Review Here)
Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)
Like Buzzard, Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip is an exercise in male-driven misanthropy that’s been recounted time after time in contemporary American filmmaking. And like Buzzard, what makes Listen Up Philip successful is in the methods it takes to subverting expectations. It’s all in nuance, in taking the old and approaching it in a new and interesting way. A film like this would not afford its supporting female character with significant material, yet it’s Elisabeth Moss, along with the slew of other women in the film, that dominate and direct the film’s trajectory. A film like Listen Up Philip would normally not employ an overseeing narrator in such liberal gestures as Perry does here. Yet it’s in this unseen narrator where the film offers complications in tense and mood, providing an entirely different dimension to its misanthropy - where the present is spoken of as the past and vice versa. And the decision to shoot on 16mm is the kind of bold tonal choice that gives the film unprecedented warmth and humanity. In what’s only his third film, Perry has set himself up as a master-class American filmmaker. (Full Review Here)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)
Isao Takahata may not be as prolific as the now retired Hayao Miyazaki, but his Studio Ghibli contributions rival the best of the great Japanese director’s. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is Takahata’s most accomplished work and among the studio’s finest achievements. It is one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen, animated or otherwise, and possesses the sort of rare humanism that most live-action films fail to realize. It’s a film that’s equal parts oppressively dire and convincingly hopeful about humanity, all the while maintaining a child-like wonder about the world. And like Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, it is a film that follows its own cadence, unfolding under its own narrative and thematic concerns. In a decade that has produced so few commendable animated films, it needs to be acknowledged how truly remarkable a piece of work this is - when films like Frozen and The LEGO Movie are prized for their commercial success and branding appeal, it’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya that reminds you that animation can be an art form. (Full Review Here)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
Robert Altman once suggested that a film needs to be screened twice: the first time around you’re too busy with the “whodunit” aspects of the picture to truly appreciate the craft on display. David Fincher’s Gone Girl escaped me the first time around. I adored it, to be sure, but I found it lacking all the verbal panache and stylistic flares that made films like The Social Network and Zodiac so impressive. It wasn’t his best film. And I maintain that notion, though it’s that initial mindset that ultimately prevented me from realizing just how good Gone Girl happens to be. The film is dark, twisted, and perversely funny. And most of all, it’s executed really, really well. Like Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh, or any other technically accomplished workhorse director, one tends to lose sight of how effortless these directors move their camera and stage scene after scene. We mistakenly confuse effortlessness for slightness, losing sight of the scope at hand. In Gone Girl, Fincher constantly exercises something close to a prankster’s wink on every glide and edit. The meet-cute encounter between Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike (both submitting excellent performance) is barely decipherable amid the sonic dissonance of Trent Reznor and Attic Ross’ score, fueling the inevitable matrimonial nightmare that the film promotes. Or the excellent edit, from one scene involving a first kiss only to be followed by an oral police swabbing. And the “Cool Girl” sequence is perhaps the most intricately staged and beautifully-edited scene in a David Fincher film ever. All this barrels towards an anti-climax of such dark consequence that it’s no wonder audiences questioned its end; this is about as dark and morbid as any mainstream Hollywood film is going to get. I loved it. (Full Review Here)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
I’ll get the platitudes right out of the way: Under the Skin is an experience like no other and the best science-fiction film since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It goes without saying that it is the best film of 2014.
I saw the film on two separate and memorable occasions. The first included a screening with Jonathan Glazer in attendance, where he thoroughly deconstructed his methodology and approach to the film. It’s a film about sight, the act of seeing, he said, and more importantly, it’s a film about how we subconsciously employ social demarcations into our observations. This is all largely explored in the first half of the picture, where much of Scarlett Johansson’s roaming through Glasgow is defined by her physical presence. Men are lured by her femininity and therefore exercise their hegemonic right to pursue her - little do they know that they are the ones in danger. In a year where a catcalling video made national news, it’s interesting to see Under the Skin as both an affirmation of this sort of gender domination as well as a role-reversal.
On a cloudy and rainy day I found shelter in Paris’ USG Cine Cite Les Halas, where I caught Under the Skin for a second time. This viewing confirmed the film’s greatness and was only enhanced by the foreign trappings of my vacation. The sound system of the Parisian theater amplified this sense of complete unknowing - Mica Levi’s otherworldly score thumped on my eardrums like a death march. These sort of full-on immersive experiences are rarities. Some films occur at the right time in your life, at a moment when your senses are most receptive to whatever transmissions a film is airing. Under the Skin is one of those films. It pierces beyond the skin, implanting a piece of itself right down to your core. (Full Review Here)