I’m taking so long to write about El Tercero, a post which turned from a note into a review into an analysis — something I haven’t done in a while — that I figured that I might as well write my Best of 2014 list.
Note: I’ve copied and pasted a lot of text from my film diary on Letterboxd.
If lists like these are valuable, they are because they encourage you to watch something that you might not have heard of before or had heard of and didn’t give it a chance. I haven’t seen everything that was released in 2014, and neither has anyone else, so consider this list and yours and everyone else’s as places to begin, not end.
Best ofs are misnamed. They should be called I Liked These Movies, or something less pretentious. Lists should not be about making you feel bad or the critic, or other critics, feel superior. I’m sharing this list because I love what’s on it and hope someone else out there who values some of the same things I do will have some fun with it. I hope you’ll make some pleasurable discoveries of your own by looking it over. If you have any recs for me, tell me about them.
There are a lot fewer movies on this 2014 list than there were on the 2013 list. I’m not sure why. But, just a quick look at my Letterboxd diary shows I’ve watched more older movies than new ones. Or maybe I just watched more TV shows than films. I watched a helluva lotta TV shows last year.
So here’s the list with commentary to follow, in the order that I think of them, which might tell you something. I don’t think of films as static objects, but rather as experiences, so it doesn’t make sense to me to put numbers in front of them. The ones I return to will likely be different experiences when I do. But unlike in previous years, most of the films I loved ended up being GTMs. Hmmmm. Most of them also were written, or co-written, by their directors.
The eligibility for inclusion is based on the film’s release date, not on when I saw it or when it gained wide release in the United States. So, if you’re looking for Snowpiercer, it was on last year’s list. 🙂
Directed by Hong Khaou
With a moving, humble but knock-out performance from Pei-pei Cheng as an elder and isolated Cambodian-Chinese mother living in London and who’s never learned how to communicate in English, and a detailed, pointed, accomplished character- and emotion-driven script from its director, as well as drifting camerawork that mesmerized, Lilting was the GTM that came out of nowhere for me and rewarded me in different ways each time I watched it. Although the circular pan of dancing people that climaxes the film is less effective than everything that comes before it, if just as poetic, I still value the film’s other insights, particularly in depicting how people worry so much about saying the wrong thing that they end up misunderstanding themselves as well as second-guessing and underestimating everyone else, and spreading more misery than is really necessary. It’s a different kind of coming out story, and one made more poignant because of those dynamics.
Watched 3 times.
Directed by Laura Poitras
This documentary about Edward Snowden is as moving in its way as the character-driven fiction features on this list, and indispensable in a way that no other movie on this list could be.
The Normal Heart
Directed by Ryan Murphy
I wept all three times I watched this HBO reboot of Larry Kramer’s AIDS-crisis play, adapted by Kramer himself. It’s flawed, like Kramer as an activist, like Murphy as an auteur, like our responses were in the beginning of the AIDS crisis, yet the film allows Ned Weeks, the main character and Kramer’s surrogate, to remain an asshole in some ways we can’t ignore; and yet, he still finds love. In a time when Hollywood is every bit as cynical and calculating as cigarette companies have been, it’s refreshing to watch a film that assumes we’ll be forgiving. It shouldn’t surprise us then that this film, like last year’s Behind the Candelabra, was too gay, too blatantly political and emotional, for Hollywood. Despite the centrality of Weeks, the other characters get more than their due and aren’t just there to showcase Weeks. Also, in contrast to most Hollywood AIDS drama, the communal senses of urgency, confusion, and anger that we felt for so long are genuine and powerfully depicted.
Watched three times.
Love Is Strange
Directed by Ira Sachs
This was another emotional experience for me, and one I repeated. Sachs’ best film to date, in which the personal and the political are shown to be inseparable as a recently married gay couple, played with wisdom and soul by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, lose everything except each other when they get married. They are the year’s most endearing and believable couple, of any orientation.
Praia do Futuro
Directed by Karim Aïnouz
I’ve made a couple attempts to write about this lugubrious, beautiful, if sometimes painful-to-watch relationships study from Brazil, and I’ve failed. Whether it’s because of its elliptical narrative tactics or its mysterious and haunting imagery, I don’t know. But it has stayed with me and I’ve just downloaded it again for a third watch.
Here’s what I wrote after the second time I watched it:
I’ve seen two impressive GTMs from Brazil within a couple of months of each other — and no, the other one is not the wildly over-praised teen-romance The Way He Looks. After the second watch of this dreamy, lugubrious and unexpectedly contemplative HBO-co-produced feature from Karim Ainouz, the director of Madame Satã, which I’ll have to see again, this might be even better than Tatuagem. I responded to the latter’s exuberant and sexually celebratory tone immediately. Given how cool I am these days to de rigueur long takes, I didn’t warm to Praia do Futuro as quickly as I might have.
But it does share attributes with many of the films that have caught my attention lately: An international setting (Brazil and Germany) and a consciousness of the varied and sometimes conflicting reasons people travel or emigrate; a multilingual milieu (German, Portuguese, English); a interrogation of what “home” means. As an expat and an exile, and as someone always struggling to communicate in a non-native language, including with lovers, these are all very personal issues that speak to me, but it seems that world film culture is also paying attention to the same things, or at least there are enough movies addressing these concerns that I feel justified in making that claim. Maybe that means that more people than ever are thinking about the same things.
I want to write a longer review so rather than go into any detail, I’ll just say that the depiction of a relationship between the two male leads is fresh, erotic in unique ways and detached from any of the issues of sexual identity that we’ve come to associate with GTMs, instead putting the relationship in a full-life and full-world context. But beyond that, there’s an acknowledgement of how love and even family doesn’t always provide enough context for some people to live in the world, and how that ultimate sense of futility doesn’t necessarily limit one’s ability to make connections. There’s a kind of abstract zen beauty therefore in the long takes (landscape shots with the characters dwarfed within them, a slow ride in a glass-enclosed elevator which shaft is an aquarium, a ecstatic dance in a nightclub with the diegetic dance music occluded, and the final lovely and somehow sad tracking shot of three motorbikes in the morning mist) denying their formal stasis and making the jumps in narrative time all the more poignant. I found Praia do Futuro to be a rewarding and complex experience and a beautiful film.
FWIW: This is a much better film than The Way He Looks, the official Brazilian submission to the Academy for best foreign language film, and which everyone else seems to have fallen in love with. The original short was better.
Dear White People
Directed by Justin Simien and Adriana Serrano
Smart and funny as hell, it’s an answer of sorts to Spike Lee’s School Daze (and Do The Right Thing), and a good antidote to the usual rote discussions of race in mainstream media.
Watched twice, and I laughed even more the second time.
Directed by Joel Potrykus
This is a self-reflexive, funny, and punk-as-fuck indie, with a warped and wry performance at its center. It’s probably more challenging in its way than any other film on this list, and not for all tastes, I’d say.
Watched twice, with lots of scene repetition.
HT: Drew Hunt
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
This artful, widescreen horror film surprised me more than any other on this list — for its symmetrical and color-coded beauty, the precise and chill-inducing framing, a quotidian mise-en-scène that nevertheless manages to convey dark-comic dread and paranoia in every frame, for its restrained performances and non-condescending characterizations of its teen protagonists, for never being able to decide whether it’s a monster movie (when it’s less compelling) or a psychological horror experiment (when it’s just too much). The tension is subtle but it’s a lot more formally interesting and effective than the relatively rote beats and references of the much-ballyhooed designer horror of The Babadook, or worse, the nastiness of something like The Treatment, neither of which I was ever able to watch without fast-forwarding.
If I’d seen Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover first, I might have guessed he’d turn to horror next, because the way his camera frames the most innocent and clichéd teenage coming-of-age drama and how he directs his amateur actors suggest that we should expect disaster at any moment, although it never comes.
In It Follows, situated in the same milieu, it does, and then some. Mitchell asks what it means for us to imagine sex as a curse, and monsters in the suburbs, filled as they are with so much scary, empty space, and among our friends and neighbors, which makes him a truer heir to great genre directors, to John Carpenter in some ways and to George Romero in others, than any modern horror director I can think of.
Watched twice, the second time in bed with the covers pulled up.
Directed by Mischa Kamp
The narrative arc of this young gay-male coming-out story is typical. A precocious jock named Marc subtly and chastely seduces a less confident Sieg, a budding track star. But Sieg is not quite ready to come out yet and betrays his new friend by pretending to be straight. Things work out all right though.
Thankfully, the film mixes up its shots in unpredictable and inventive ways. The series of mostly out-of-focus, mostly slower-motion shots that runs under the opening credits establishes the characters’ sporty milieux and the film’s color palette. The camera tracks from behind a young boy in a blue uniform as he trains in the wan light at dawn. The running track itself is a contrasting deep salmon and along with the lighting, the effect is almost like a duotone.
This sequence is followed by a lovely montage that introduces the characters as athletes. It combines a handful of close-ups of hands pulling up socks, sneakers on the blocks, a high-angle medium close-up of a starting pistol and official, the lineup of boys at the starting line in medium close-up as they size each other up, a slow-motion shot of the race in profile and in long shot, an overhead shot of the finish, and more. The camera rack-focuses frequently, revealing one detail after another, and pulling the eye along.
Editor Katarina Turler deserves a lot of credit for the breezy watchability of the film and for including several shots that rhyme visually with others later on. My favorite one of these begins with two boys facing each other in a strength and balance tie-up. They’re embracing the way wrestlers would. The camera shoots them from underneath. Later, as they get to know each other swimming in a stream, the camera shoots their first kiss, and then their second, from overhead, a log dividing the frame down the middle, their entwining arms in the center. I also admired the foreshortened long shot of Sieg on his bike, obscured by a bridge that dominates the foreground, as he tries to decide whether or not to meet up with Marc alone and enjoy those kisses. There’s a subtle tension there in how the shot is composed. Who wouldn’t be rooting for him?
I could go on. I liked this film a lot, despite some predictable scenarios. Gay boys always make it on the beach and ride motorcycles together in these movies. But I didn’t mind these tropes. It’s still a guilt-free feel-good TV movie about young love from the Netherlands. The young leads are great, particularly Gijs Blom as Sieg. His changing expressions are priceless, moving from confusion to shy delight as he realizes he’s being hit on, that someone thinks he’s hot. How often do we get to see that?
Watched three times.
Directed by Rodrigo Guerrero
I’ve begun writing about this fresh and sexy materialist exploration of a seduction carried out in Córdoba, Argentina, so I won’t say much about it now, other than it contains the best sex scene in any non-porn movie I saw this year.
Watched four times and I finally wrote it about here.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Lots of films try to depict the effects of always-on communication technology and its attendant narcissism but few have the authority, humor and star power of Clouds of Sils Maria. (I couldn’t say the same about Assyas’ laughably off-kilter and unconvincing Demon Lover.) I found mesmerizing the rapport between Kristen Stewart, who comes of age beautifully in this film, and Juliette Binoche, in what is among her most incisive and funny performances. Stewart plays the personal assistant to Binoche’s aging star and everything that gets uncovered as Stewart’s character tries and fails to make her boss a better actor, if not a better person, and wrangle her ego, makes Assayas’ intensely relevant and alive film everything Birdman is not — a peek at where and who we are right now.
Directed by Mike Leigh
Turner was the first artist I remember liking, after a visit to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in high school. Back in class, our teacher asked us which paintings moved us. When I said Turner, she looked at me funny. I still don’t know why.
I’m still not sure how much more I know about J.M.W. Turner either after watching this movie, but maybe I know a bit more about Mike Leigh as a filmmaker and why I’ve often felt his presentation of characters displayed as much misanthropy as they have what some of us call empathy, usually mistakenly.
Still, I loved this odd, beautiful, hilarious, occasionally grotesque and altogether engrossing portrait of an artist getting ready to slide down from his very English apotheosis. Although at first the performances verging on caricature were off-putting — back to the misanthropy again — it became clear to me that maybe Turner was the character that Leigh identifies with most of all.
Turner’s generosity, compassion and sense of proportion and history inhabited the same space as his casual misanthropy, his indifference and cruelty, particularly to his family. As in his painting: a sunset lights a slave ship throwing Africans overboard, the water around them brown, murky and thick; or in others, how smoke and steam and fire mitigate the brilliance of the light, but are inseparable to how it’s perceived.
But nothing makes so much sense of his life as his insistence in sketching the corpse of a drowned woman on the beach in one of the film’s final scenes, just before his own death. Is she objectified? Memorialized? Or simply recorded and reported? Does he see himself? His own daughter, whose death he ignored? It seems clear what’s emphasized in this scene is that this man whose focus of vision was often so fearless and committed, was also very very afraid.
Grand Budapest Hotel
The only fiction-film Oscar nominee that I gave a shit about. I didn’t love it as I did Moonrise Kingdom, which is, after Rushmore, my favorite Wes Anderson film, but there’s plenty to marvel at.
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was one of my favorites from 2011 but this Palm D’or winner, inspired by an Anton Chekhov short story, is even more accomplished if quite a bit more talky. Once again, Ceylan’s usual cinematographer, Gökhan Tiryaki, is as much an auteur as Ceylan is, and he’s equally adept in framing indoor conversations, which are shot and dramatized more like monologues, as he is in capturing the breathtaking and almost alien geography of Anatolia.
Two Days, One Night
Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
One thing I’ve always appreciated about the films of the Dardenne brothers is the insistence that, pivoting off Orwell, a commitment to morality requires a constant struggle.
Consequently, their oft-imitated shooting style — a handheld camera that tracks and follows the main characters as they negotiate and work through that struggle — requires us as viewers to maintain a certain high level of attention and commitment just to keep up, to keep our heads straight, to not fall apart. (The Son left me shaking.) It’s exhausting to look at and pay attention to Igor, Rosetta, and Olivier in my three favorite Dardenne movies, as it should be.
But in Two Days, One Night and in their previous Kid On a Bike, it’s a lot easier. There’s a certain schematic inevitability to the trajectory of the narrative in both movies, and as viewers we’re not asked to make as many uncomfortable choices. The emotional and political stakes are just as high, and the focus on material reality and socio-economic dynamics is admirable. In Two Days, One Night, the analysis is marxist and overt, focusing as it does on the paradoxical conflicts that capital sets up between workers, screwing everyone without the power to hire and fire.
So it’s not surprising that the tracking shot that the Dardennes helped propagate throughout contemporary art-film production occurs just once, as Marion Cotillard’s Sandra retreats in defeat from yet another encounter with a co-worker who is not willing to sacrifice a bonus in order to preserve her job. But it’s not a long take, either, as we’ve been used to in Dardenne films. In fact, the shot-length throughout is more or less conventional.
More importantly though, spread out through the whole network of workers whose solidarity is tested or whose livelihood is threatened, there is no one character or set of characters or situations with the moral force and power revealed in La promesse, Rosetta or Le fils. I’m not saying this is a failure. I’m just saying my appreciation of the film is more cerebral and political and less emotional than in other Dardenne films. But maybe my expectations were unfair.
Still, this is in a whole other moral universe from something like the execrable American Sniper, in which body count and fighting the “bad guys” is the sole determination for whom is recognized as a hero.
The World of Kanako
Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima
Weird one. Intense. Couldn’t finish watching his earlier Confessions, though.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
I prefer this hipster vampire movie to Let The Right One In and whatever its boring remake was called.
Directed by Yann Demange
My kind of action picture — a moral one — and reminding me of Scorcese’s After Hours.
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Jamie Marks Is Dead
Directed by Carter Smith
I’ve watched this twice trying to figure out why it was so unsettling and hit-and-miss compelling but also not quite satisfying. It’s got a unique style and atmosphere, though, and it’s more than worth a look.
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Directed by Eskil Vogt
Finally, here’s a big list from just about everyone.