It comes time to credit the cinema standouts of 2014. Here I am again, perplexed by the ratings and statistics, the festivals and the box offices, the ways in which we organize films into tiny fragmented collections. We want an ultimate guide, a canon if you will, but such a thing–does it exist? Here are my picks. Chosen with great scrutiny, neurotically bound by Origin Country Release Date, a snapshot of the years greatest films.
25. Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof, Charlie Siskel, USA, April 17 [Italy])
24. Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, USA, November 14)
With a theatrical presence bolstered by long take, wide-angle cinematography, the disheveled is renewed vis-a-vis the ultimate rejection of intellectual thought, critical inquiry, labels and slogans—i.e. the rejection of bullshit. A social satire directed at the superficial nature of show business, Birdman (2014) sincerely and philosophically considers the detrimental effects not only of being in the spotlight but of observing the spotlight. It thus forms a conscious reading of the disconnected space between subject and object—audience and theater, critic and actor, sight and sighted. In either position there is a degree of incommunicability.
23. Force Majeure (Turist, Ruben Ostlund, Sweeden, August 15)
A portrayal of seemingly banal insights illustrate how people are always stuck on the little things which, to them, feel like big things. Östlund’s nuanced comparison between magnificent forces of nature and human frivolity is both revealing and humbling, making Force Majeure a significant work not only of comedy but of existential drama.
22. Walking Under Water (Eliza Kubarska, Poland, May 10)
Walking Under Water is to some extent like an underwater version of Gravity. Gorgeous underwater photography creates a spectacle of grace and movement similar to that found in Cuarion’s 3D blockbuster. The major difference is simply a change in material—from air/space to water.
21. Food Chains (Sanjay Rawal, USA, November 21)
A highly resourceful documentary, Food Chains presents footage culled from old documentaries, news reels, and historical political activities and movements. It uses these sources to contextualize the plot-based hunger strike in Immokalee which inspired the documentary to be made. Food Chains is not only an impressive and highly informing documentary, but a highly entertaining one.
20. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, USA, October 31)
19. Lucy (Luc Besson, USA, July 25)
Though divisive and critically overlooked, Luc Besson’s Lucy (2014) will surely satisfy the armchair philosopher, especially those psychedelically inclined. Indebted to the LSD consciousness expansion movement of the 60s counterculture, Lucy is frankly the best visual interpretation of Mind at Large, a theory posited by Aldous Huxley which states that the mind is furnished with a filtration valve in order to render the material world into comprehensible form. Taking off from the writings and research of philosophers, psychologists, and writers of the day, such as Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Richard “Ram Dass” Alpert, William S. Burroughs, and Ralph Metzner, Lucy weaves theories of phenomenology into an instance, a practice, a ‘what-if’ situation.
18. Wild (Jean Marc-Vallee, USA, December 3)
To embrace the chaos and uncontrollable nature of life can be revolutionary. This is no better expressed than in Wild’s intimate portrayal of a woman’s journey towards healing. Cheryl Strayed, depicted admirably by Reese Witherspoon in one of the rawest performances of her career, hikes through the Pacific Crest as a manner of challenging her integrity. A metaphor for overcoming her baggage, completing the hike provides a much needed respite for her to learn to accept and respect herself. The film thereby illustrates self-discovery as a form of revelation.
17. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, December 12)
16. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintzev, Russia, September 24 [France])
As a grand, unequalled presence, Leviathan refers to the invisible forces that govern the moral and social world: religious and political bodies. Visual metaphors are presented in large expanses of water, a giant skeleton, and a bulldozer. These symbols display a contrast of sorts: they are natural and mechanical; their great presence is visible. The great forces, however, behind bodies of religion and politics remain unseen. The contradiction between natural (visible) and social (invisible) forces symbolizes a great hypocrisy. In Leviathan, a family in crisis deals with this hypocrisy as it affects, dominates, and thus governs social well-being.
15. Coming Home (Gui La, Zhang Yimou, China, May 16)
A powerful, emotionally entrenched film about longing, devotion, and sorrow, Coming Home tells the story of a woman, struck with a unique form of amnesia, who is unable to recognize her husband after he returns from twenty years in prison. In perhaps her finest performance to date, Gong Li steals the show in her role as Feng. While showing an entire range of emotions, from sad longing to hope and joy to pain and malaise, she perfectly captures the mannerisms of a woman lost in thought. Her abrupt blank expressions aptly convey her deteriorated mental state. This in conjunction with Yimou’s masterful use of natural lighting, a feature he is well known for, creates a deeply melancholy mood, bolstered furthermore by rain, snow, and a general wintery atmosphere evoking feelings of silence, longing, and sorrow.
14. Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu Nuri Belge Ceylan, Turkey, June 13)
Gorgeous scenery bookends and indexes the pedantic conversations found in this frustrating yet beautiful film. Overwritten dialogue and repetitive framings undermine Winter Sleep’s artistic impulse. At times, respite from Winter Sleep’s political and moral discussion comes in the form of elaborate cinematography and gorgeously designed mise-en-scene. The Anatolian setting is perfectly cinematic, and Beylan has a way of rendering a sense of naturalness in each of his thoughtful shots.
13. Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit, Belgium, May 21)
To put it simply, the film is an intimate exploration of fraternity. It carefully and closely examines the faces, the reactions, and the responses of people who must face the decision between helping a person in need or helping themselves. The reason for each characters decision is expressed in dialogue while Sandra’s plight is visually observed through a hand camera which tends to follow her in close-up medium-long takes. When she herself must face the same dilemma as her co-workers, we see how tough the decision truly is.
12. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, USA, October 10)
11. Flore (Jean-Albert Lievre, France, September 24)
Beginning as a cell-phone document of a mother’s final days, Flore becomes a grand edit of images and sounds which artistically express the fragility of life itself. In a fractured and fragmentary design, Flore visually approximates the experience of a woman with Alzheimer’s. Using still photography, film, video, and excerpts from home video, Lievre’s documentary becomes an intimate an unflinching look at a woman’s final days.
10. Blind Massage (Tui Na, China, November 28)
Winner of the Best Cinematography category at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival, Blind Massage is a remarkable visual journey through the lives of a group of blind masseurs and masseuses. Exceptionally shot with an active hand-held camera, obfuscated images and focal blur visually approximate the sights or lack thereof the characters it observes. Further to this cinematic approach is a mise-en-scene influenced by smoke, rain, and opaque glass. The result is a beautifully intimate portrayal of life in the shadows.
9. Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, March 14)
Full TIFF13 Review
Full Secondary Review
“Pure Cinema”. I stated this once before, but that was within a (TIFF 13) review, at which time I believed that the film’s narrative tendencies didn’t quite justify the formal means by which they were rendered. On second viewing, I let the images and sounds wash over me, and I found the film’s withholding to be rather exceptional. It is only through this withholding that we can come to relate in any way with the alien’s predicament.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA, March 28)
7. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai ri han yuo, Yi’nan Diao, China, March 21)
Black Coal, Thin Ice displays an exceptional mise-en-scene involving opaque glass windows, ice, filtered lighting, and smoke. The result is a heavily nuanced, grainy and gritty film quality, aesthetically reminiscent of 1940s film noir. This Chinese neo-noir, however, uses expressionistic tendencies to create mood. This in conjunction with its natural soundtrack of washing machines, ice skates, and weather, Black Coal, Thin Ice conveys a brilliantly involved and affected atmosphere of solemnity and disquietude.
6. Phoenix (Christian Petzold, Germany, September 25)
A metaphor of the mythological firebird whose tears revive others and whose ashes revive self, Phoenix is the incredible story of a woman re-becoming herself after facing trauma and loss of identity in a concentration camp. Not even recognized by her husband, Nelly (Nina Hoss) commits to a charade wherein she must play the role of Johnny’s wife. In doing so, she not only learns about her former self but re-experiences the excitement of first acquainting with a lover.
5. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Denmark/Argentina, November 27)
Jauja (2014) brings to the screen the existence of a space which exists outside of time and place. Jauja, a supposed place of heavenly features, shares qualities with the mystical, the mythical, and the magical. As humans, we are deeply invested, consciously or unconsciously, in discovery of the unknown. In Jauja, though this search is alluded to in the opening titles, no search is to be seen besides the search of a daughter by her father. There is no search, because, in Jauja, we are already at the destination.
4. The Immigrant (James Gray, USA, May 23)
The film is most notable for its calculated mise-en-scene which contributes towards a highly immersive and taut atmosphere. The grit and grain in conjunction with a rather grey colour palette recalls the aesthetic of old 35 mm film stock. Along with post-production dimming, it helps to support the film’s aim to realize the past as authentically as possible. The mood is sincere and helps to capitulate the interiority of Ewa, a suffering Polak who faces the possibility of deportation and the loss of her sister. Played by Marion Cotillard, Ewa is depicted not only as a victim of circumstance but as a lost soul seeking redemption in a world full of tribulations.
3. Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada, September 19)
With most of the film taking a 1:1 aspect ration, the film expresses a concept I will call perennial nostalgia. The aspect ratio is akin to first generation cell-phones, an image form which clearly inspired Dolan in the filmmaking process. Mommy, a film dealing with memory, the past, and nostalgia, uses the 1:1 ratio to give a sense of immediate appreciation of the past. In modern life, we choose to capture important moments with our cell-phone cameras. We immediately look at the photo and thereby feel nostalgic for a moment gone but which literally just happened. With each moment being a passing one, Dolan conveys the idea of photographing and thus memorizing a moment in history, through film.
Mommy is beautifully shot with many gorgeous sequences of sun-kissed lighting, slow motion, and harmonically rhythmic music. Long shots and slow zooms open and close space while door frames often encase the characters within a frame similar to the frame of a photograph. With Mommy, Dolan is revolutionizing film form. Frankly, I’ve never quite seen a film like it.
2. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, August 15)
While Linklater overtly discusses how we pass through time and become able to look back; the film’s structure and dialogue evoke the impermanent qualities of life. It suggests that as time passes, we don’t remember things which have passed, but that we are looking back at a moment which, in itself, remains present. 18 year old Mason remembers being 6 years old, not as something in the past, but as a past presence. 6 year old Mason doesn’t live in the past, 6 year old Mason lives in the now. 7 year old Mason lives in the now. And so on. Boyhood is truly a landmark in cinema history. It is what the Tree of Life would be if the poetic turned literary. It is concretized poetry; the spiritual made tangible.
1. Journey to the West (Xi you, Tsai Ming-Liang, France/Taiwan, March 13)
A monk slowly walks west (presumably). He is the embodiment and conveyance of constant change, the foundation of Buddhist thought. Holding onto the notion of impermanence, this man’s slow but continuous movements are contrasted with the actions of bystanders who are always in a state of stop-and-go. The monk, however, never stops; his every slight movement thereby becomes an expression of an instance in time. Each instance, acutely realized in his measured movements, renders time senseless, inscrutable, and so minute that it feels as though time stands still. But like a pebble rippling in still water, there is constant change and flux, and there is perpetual movement—both of object and of time—as the monk inches forwards. There is a great sense of eternity in this.
And now for the Honourable Mentions!
Here is my two part honorable mentions list: first, films of 2013 which gained momentum in 2014 (would make the top 20 under different criteria); second, films just barely edged out.
1. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Japan), Papusza (Poland), Class Enemy (Slovenia), Nymphomaniac (Denmark), Ida (Poland), Jalanaan (Indonesia)
2. Guardians of the Galaxy (USA), Gone Girl (USA), Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (USA), A Most Wanted Man (USA), Nas: Time Is Illmatic (USA), The Lego Movie (USA)