Culling over five years worth of films and citing the best is bound to leave plenty of favorites on the outside looking in. The following films aren’t necessarily the next so-and-so best films that couldn’t make The List proper, but rather, personal favorites and affectations that, for whatever reason, were not cited. They’re all exceptional films for a variety of tastes though, and function as the complementary appetizer to our main course.
Wise-Up: The Films of Frederick Wiseman
Boxing Gym (2010), Crazy Horse (2011), At Berkeley (2013), and National Gallery (2014)
Frederick Wiseman has been making films since the 1960s yet it was in the last five years that I first became aware of his body of work. And it’s an incredible filmography that’s exactly the sort of documentary filmmaking that I respond to most: observational and unmotivated by overt narrative threads. At Berkeley, the film that introduced me to his work, is a hardy deconstruction of academia and administration as the director observes the goings-on of the Berkeley campus for a year. It’s an immense and immersive work devoid of bias, and so remarkably constructed that the four-plus hour runtime breezes without objection. National Gallery is an equally substantial film, and notably bares Berkeley’s affectation for dualities between administration and patrons.
His other two films would perhaps be considered lesser efforts when compared to the mammoth ambitions of At Berkeley and National Gallery, but Boxing Gym and Crazy Horse’s brevity and milieus should not be mistaken for slightness. They are more tightly constructed and prone to emphasize routine and micro concerns than overt dualities found in their institutions. But because of this they are less dramatically anchored and possess a more free-spirited and breathless quality. Wiseman’s efforts have been important discoveries over the past five years and are worthy of a much wider audience. Their cadence, their naturalism, and their grace make him one of the most vital and impressive documentary filmmakers of today.
David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds, and Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle
Every generation has its economic crisis and every generation produces films concerned with it. But in a globalized marketplace, those concerns have spawned a slew of interesting films from international directors. From Canada’s David Cronenberg tackling Don DeLillo’s novel on the global collapse to Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho’s debut film on the extending exploitation of the middle class, these are films that deal with crumbling economies in unexpected ways. The milieus that Cronenberg and Filho cultivate are so radically different from any film preceding it, making their embrace of such contemporary material register as doubly paramount. Mixed with a remarkably sophisticated visual and narrative approach – you’d be hard-pressed to understand all of Cosmopolis’ chatter on an initial viewing while Neighboring Sounds is especially elegant for a debut – and you have two distinct and intelligent voices concerned with an increasing globalized marketplace.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s Johnnie To takes a considerably more familiar approach to economic collapse through a three-prong crime narrative in Life Without Principle. Perhaps a bit less refined than Jia Zhang-Ke’s similar-minded A Touch of Sin, it remains a formidable work from To, where he gracefully weaves concerns of economic duress within a criminal vortex that threatens to swallow all of its characters whole. To’s proven to be a master in addressing socioeconomic concerns within a genre context, and while Life Without Principle may not be his most effective outing, it’s still a considerable effort from one of the globe’s foremost genre practitioners.
Life’s Not Worth Living Without the One You Love
Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, and David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook
To condense what I consider to be the most fundamental dramatic aspect that a film could possibly tell can be taken from a line in Inside Llewyn Davis’ main track, “Fare Thee Well”: “life’s not worth living without the one you love”. Regardless of my reservations or affectations for a certain kind of formalism, I tend to gravitate and welcome pictures that can tell that fundamental narrative and tell it with passion and intensity. In the case of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, we see a lethargic actor and father reunite with his daughter, awakening a fanaticism between the two that livens the picture. Coppola’s filmmaking can at times prove cold and disconcerting, but it’s in Somewhere where risible and authentic warmth to be gauged through the blossoming relationship between father and daughter.
The process of memory making and capacities to hold onto those memories are delved into in Miguel Gomes’ Tabu and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. Tabu’s aggressive stylism masks the mundane, where an elderly woman recalls her former love affair, a memory so vibrant that it arguably makes for the most passionate relationship captured in contemporary cinema. Jarmusch’s vampire love story treats memory as peripheral, literally decorating the background, as contending with the present proves most vital between its lovelorn vampires. In both pictures, there’s a tendency to hold onto the one you love, whether they be in the form of a memory or supernatural.
The madcap frenzy of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook may not possess the subdued wisdom of Mike Leigh’s Another Year, but the two operate on similar principles on the importance of companionship. They’re both films about seeking and holding onto that partner that completes you, and moreover, acknowledging that relationships truly need that sense of spontaneity to survive. In Another Year, you have an ideal couple that serves as the benchmark of marriage, and is the point of admiration and even jealousy. Yet Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) tend to their relationship with the same patience as they do with their garden. They have their quibbles and disagreements, but they keep each other on their toes, never giving into the pressures of toxic negativity. A couple like Silver Linings Playbook’s Pat and Tiffany (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) may be one to oppose such contentment, if only because their emotional baggage suggests a rejection of stability. But fundamentally they’re after the same thing: happiness, to be shared between lovers.
A First Time for Everything
Zal Batmanglij’s The Sound of My Voice, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, and Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat
Three directorial debuts are featured in prominent positions in my list proper, with Zal Batmanglij’s The Sound of My Voice, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, and Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat sitting on the fringes. While there may be objectively better films than the three I have outlined, I do think it bares noting that these three films come from very different places and possess a sure-footedness that are rare in debuts. In Batmanglij’s case we see a writer/director with the capacity to turn the screw and amplify tension to an unbearable degree. He utilizes narrative devices to magnify anxiety, all in a concentrated effort that supplements his actors (Brit Marling is especially terrific here).
Similarly, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child is a film anchored around its actors, or rather its lead, Jenny Slate. Citing Robespierre might seem a bit peculiar since she doesn’t exercise much directorial authority over the film, which at times is executing with as much lavish as a sitcom. But there’s no denying her capacities as a writer and moreover, in her capacities for creating a moment. Xavier Dolan once noted in an interview with Film Comment that there are those films you watch and those you feel and Obvious Child, with it’s toilet humor and impressive lead performance, defiantly ascribes to the latter. From sequences involving awkwardly placed underwear to an unusual fascination with bar bathrooms and impromptu watersports, Obvious Child perhaps fulfills an unusual subgenre of gross-out comedy, but I’ll be damned if it hasn’t resonated with me.
And what’s in reality one of the most impressive and economically directed films of the past five years, Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat constantly defies classification. An uncanny resemblance can be found, where the picture seems to be riffing on the films of Jacques Tati and Michael Haneke. But the final product remains an anomaly. With sequences bleeding into one another and its uncharacteristically composed framing, The Strange Little Cat is just so uncommonly refined. As the foreground shelters a narrative about a family getting ready for a dinner, one can look at the immaculately composed backdrop to see another, perhaps more lurid, narrative developing. It’s a pop-up book of a film, where Zürcher rewards the patient viewer willing to look beyond the actions of the foreground to find something remarkably complex.
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash, and François Ozon’s In the House
The zeitgeist theme of the past half decade has been one of perverting the perceived American Dream, with films like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring addressing what the American Dream means to a millennial. But another undercurrent theme can be found in that amplification of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative that sees its millennial take on the grueling road to success. They are fascinating and at times ridiculous queries on the taxing methodology of carving out a legacy, but Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash, and François Ozon’s In the House are all marked by a strong stylistic approach that I respond to warmly.
Black Swan’s depiction of a young woman’s mental and physical descent toward achieving artistic perfection is measured by the two-prong effort of Aronofsky’s Dardenne-esque approach and the physicality of Natalie Portman’s performance. The two are tied to the hip, essentially functioning as a meta response to the picture’s narrative of a teacher pushing his student to the brink. It’s a film intoxicated with the notion of self-liberation, where one can only truly achieve success by breaking free of the constraints of perceived authority: teacher, mother, lover, and colleagues. Of course, by doing so one runs the risk of madness and well, even death.
While I understand why there may be a moral objection toward the sadomasochistic teacher/student relationship found in Whiplash, it’s probably best observed as a film about a kid who wants to be the best and what feeds into that ambition. He hears stories about his heroes and their big breaks, and when sitting down with his family for dinner, fails to relate to their stilted and mundane conversations. He’s striving for a legacy that’s told through story, and he commits completely to his ambitions. It’s a fascinating and exciting narrative to see unfold, with Damian Chazelle and editor Tom Cross realizing this jazz drummer’s drive with enveloping intensity; there may not be a more palpable image of sacrifice toward ambition than seeing blood staining a snare drum. If the film’s social politics are askew, it might just be because this sort of insane dedication is not for the faint of heart.
One of the more narratively complex depictions of achieving a measure of artistic ambition can be found in François Ozon’s adaptation of Juan Mayorga’s stageplay In the House. Here we find a high school teacher take a reckless but talented writer as his student, offering suggestions and guidance as the boy composes a piece that has one foot in fiction and the other in a disturbed reality. In a subversion of the previous two films, its here where teacher and student are on an even keel, often times pushing themselves to best the other. The film’s commentary on the writing process is a fascinating one, where guidance can only take you so far. And in what’s perhaps the most enlightening aspect found in this pack of films, we can muse that while a teacher’s influence can be critical, truly great artists are those who forge ahead and clear their own path.
Fond, But Not In Love
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive
And finally, the films that any other day would’ve made the cut. Woody Allen has made somewhat of a comeback over the past few years, with Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine ranking as some of his best work. Even Magic in the Moonlight was a formidable display of his talents. Elsewhere, I may not have connected with Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in the same way that others have (I would, however, make note that a rewatch of the film proved infinitely rewarding), it’s Moonrise Kingdom that remains my favorite of his films since The Royal Tenenbaums.
The chilly compositions of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher have its detractors, but I found it to be an impressive display of Miller’s talents. Films like Capote and Moneyball were all well-composed and generally agreeable films, but in Foxcatcher he’s operating on a much higher and refined level. There’s an introversion going on in that film, along with a highly attuned and perfectly calibrated study on masculinity that makes it feel vast and implosive. Whereas the aforementioned films noted in my Mad Ambition batch operate in loud and brash stokes, Foxcatcher is one of subdued contemplation. It’s a massive achievement for Miller and of all the films noted in these honorable mentions, it's the one I’m most eager to revisit.
And perhaps best reflective of this whole subsection is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a film that I can recall whole passages of with great memory despite only seeing it twice. I’d hate to condemn by saying it still strikes me as a novelty, but it’s the sort of film I appreciate for its energy and sound but ultimately isn’t something I could ever really champion. Fond, but not in love.