Tomorrow, the Oscars will put a bow on the year that was film, 2014. As always, there’s been a lot of ink spilled over what was nominated, what wasn’t, critics’ favorites, audience favorites, yadda yadda yadda. But before we wrap it up, it’s time for The Best Films of Our Lives to chime in, just under the wire. We’ve had time to catch up with the foreign and limited releases trickling into theaters, and now we present to you, dear readers, our Top 10 Films of 2014. Enjoy!
10. “The Theory of Everything”
The Oscar Best Actor race has been billed as a battle between the British scientists: Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. But it’s actually the performance of Felicity Jones, as Jane Hawking, that shines in “The Theory of Everything.” Jones, an indie darling for the Sundance hit “Like Crazy,” elevates a middling script with her performance, particularly in the scenes when she first learns of Stephen’s disease. As Redmayne’s Hawking is increasingly trapped by motor neuron disease, the movie relies on Jones for complexity and its emotional center. “The Theory of Everything” didn’t quite live up to expectations, but Jones’ and Redmayne’s performances, its cinematography, and an appropriately mathematical score rescued it from a decidedly mediocre script.
For more thoughts on “The Theory of Everything,” click here.
Enough has been written about “Boyhood” without me taking up too much space here, and while I was less swept off my feet by Richard Linklater’s latest endeavor than most of the world, I can’t deny that it’s an incredible accomplishment. Following one boy for 12 consecutive years of boyhood, the movie blends a fictional plot with the actual passage of time to create a tableau of adolescence as it passes in real time. But while Linklater should be lauded for his vision and perseverance, “Boyhood” didn’t reach the emotional pitch of his earlier time-bending works, the “Before” series. The pleasure of watching “Boyhood” mainly comes from recognition; those who loved it saw themselves and their childhoods in Mason’s experiences. But it’s not enough to simply chronicle the process of growing up, and that’s all “Boyhood” did.
At first glance, “Belle” seems like any other middlebrow period drama, cosseted and corseted women courted by powerful men in pantaloons and wigs. But Amma Asante’s movie rises above the rest due to a fascinating story, smart writing, and a stellar cast. “Belle” is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate daughter of an 18th-century British aristocrat and his slave mistress. She is raised alongside her white, aristocratic cousin under the roof of her great-uncle (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice of England who presided over a key decision that led to the abolition of slavery. It rolls a love story into an intelligent portrayal of British history, asking questions about the plight of women, the hypocrisy of the class system, and the poisonous well of racism and slavery.
7. “Only Lovers Left Alive”
If ever anyone was born to play a vampire, it was Tilda Swinton. Put her alongside Tom Hiddleston armed with Jim Jarmusch’s luscious lighting and hypnotic script, and you have “Only Lovers Left Alive.” The latest from the eclectic director, the movie follows Adam and Eve, a vampire couple who have spent their centuries inspiring and mingling with the titans of Western culture. The movie is less interested in the familiar tropes of vampires, the blood, coffins, and insomnia, and more about capturing a moment and a mood. For much of the movie, nothing happens. But Jarmusch’s striking images and the natural rapport between the two lead actors ensure that it doesn’t matter. At some point Eve’s unstable sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) appears and wreaks enough havoc to drive the plot forward, but for long stretches of this brooding, atmospheric movie, it’s enough to watch Adam and Eve be.
For more thoughts on “Only Lovers Left Alive,” click here.
I’ve seen better movies before, but no movie has ever made me as angry as Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” As the Alabama police attacked the peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge with clubs and chains, I felt a powerful urge to run out of the theater and go tell someone, anyone, how wrong it was that such things could have happened—and continue to happen. The uproar that “Selma” has inspired shows how important a film it is in our national discourse. But it is as beautiful a movie as it is timely, with exquisite cinematography and a wonderfully controlled performance by David Oyelowo as King. One of DuVernay’s great achievements was to know her limits. Recognizing the foolishness of a traditional biopic of MLK’s incredible life, she narrowed the scope, focusing on the three-month period when King and his supporters marched from Selma to Montgomery. The chaos, volatility, uncertainty, and hope of the 1960s is brought to life with such raw vitality that even if you paid close attention to the civil rights unit in history class, the movie packs surprises and suspense throughout. “Selma” doesn’t top my list for best movie this year, but it’s certainly the most important.
5. “Beyond the Lights”
In a time when Hollywood is busy figuring out how next to blow things up and save the world from alien supervillains, Gina Prince-Bythewood has made an honest, moving drama about two people falling in love. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (mentioned above in “Belle”) as Noni, a black pop star whose hypersexualized image has eclipsed her talent, the movie is a love story unashamed of being romantic, a rarity among Hollywood romances that increasingly polarize between saccharine Nicholas Sparks adaptations and indie movies riddled with irony. It’s also the story of a woman who has spent her life “ass up, face down” finding herself, her voice, and her identity. Noni’s image and time have always belonged to everyone but herself—to her exploitative mother (an excellent Minnie Driver), her agents, and her fans—and watching her take those her life back into her own hands sends a powerful, and altogether too infrequent, message to women.
4. “Relatos salvajes” (“Wild Tales”)
Are you mad as hell? Because these Argentines are. Argentina’s Oscar nominee is a compilation of six shorts connected by a single theme: we’re not going to take it anymore. From road rage spiraling out of control to a nightmare wedding, Damian Szifrón’s dark comedy is the rare anthology movie that manages to deliver consistent quality across all six segments, propelled forward by an impeccable sense of comedic timing, a razor sharp screenplay, and excellent performances. While it’s the most uplifting of the foreign film nominees—it’s the only one that doesn’t deal directly with war, oppression, and corruption—it’s no less powerful a political commentary. There’s something rotten in the state of Argentina, be it the bureaucracy, corruption, or inequality. We’ve all had days where we want to lash out at the world. These ordinary citizens show us the heady, delicious sensation of giving in, if only just this once.
For more thoughts on “Relatos salvajes,” click here.
David Carr, the New York Times journalist who died suddenly this month once said: “What I learned from two years of reporting, investigation, and writing is that you can’t know the whole truth. But if there is one, it lies in the space between people.” No movie captures that truism better than “Lilting,” the beautiful, sensitive debut of British-Cambodian writer and director, Hong Khaou. Starring Ben Whishaw and Cheng Pei-Pei as two people mourning the death of the same loved one, the movie is split evenly between English and Chinese and uses the language barrier to explore the space between people. This movie is entirely about relationships, between lovers, parents and children, strangers united in grief. Whishaw and Cheng excel, the cinematography took home top prize at Sundance, but the real standout is the script. Khaou dances between languages, alternating between an on-screen translator and subtitles without ever feeling redundant or cumbersome. By placing translation at the heart of the movie, he also provides a rare, refreshingly sensitive portrayal of the Asian immigrant experience. “Lilting” is one of the quietest movies on this list, but it resonates.
For more thoughts on “Lilting,” click here.
2. “A Coffee in Berlin”
This German indie movie swept the 2013 German Film Awards but debuted to sadly little fanfare here in the U.S. the next year. At its center is Niko (Tom Schilling), a twenty-something Berliner who has dropped out of law school and doesn’t know what to do with himself. As he goes through the city in search of a cup of coffee, it seems that no one else has any idea either. It’s a familiar tale of prolonged adolescence, told time and again in anything from “Peter Pan” to “Frances Ha,” but “A Coffee in Berlin” is one of the best of its genre. Schilling has a sensitive face made for the camera, vulnerable and open, and the movie puts together a string of slapstick moments and absurd situations that make Niko question if it’s really him that’s the problem or everyone else. It manages to be melancholy and silly at the same time, which, in the end, is what being young and confused is all about.
After watching “Ida,” you will never forget lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska’s eyes. Filmed in black and white, they appear like deep pools of memory containing the guilt and suffering of Poland’s painful twentieth century. Before taking her vows, Anna (Trzebuchowska), a novice at the Catholic nunnery where she grew up, is ordered to visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a chain-smoking, heavy drinking, sexually promiscuous Communist judge whose ardent belief in the cause has hardened into cynicism. Wanda reveals to Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and she is the daughter of Jews murdered by their Catholic neighbors in the Holocaust. Together they travel to her parents’ village—her own birthplace—to find out who killed them and what happened to their bodies. “Ida” is a technical masterpiece, an acting master class, an inquisition of the Second World War and the Communism that followed it, an inquiry into the power of faith, and the story of one young woman’s awakening. All of that in only 80 minutes.
Audacious, supremely confident, a cunning film with crowd-pleasing trappings that hide a pitch-black heart. Throw all “realistic” expectations of jazz music or modern teaching out the window – Damien Chazelle’s sharp sophomore feature is a psychological thriller masquerading as one of those “inspirational mentor” flicks. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, a young musician and his insanely abusive teacher, are both superb as two halves of a perverse, symbiotic whole: the hammer and the nail. Virtuoso editing builds the film, rhythmically, to its explosive, altogether masterful final scene.
The culmination of Richard Linklater’s twelve-year project is a paradox: an achievement of directorial ambition characterized by near-infuriating restraint. At times, the story of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) drifts along with the aimlessness of Linklater’s “Slacker” or “Dazed and Confused;” at others it flails into the kind of pretentiously over-crafted dialogue and situations that form the worst moments of his otherwise wonderful “Before” trilogy. At times, it seems to be genuinely concerned with the stories of Mason’s mother and father (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, exceptional in fulfilling a challenge never quite asked of any other actors before); at others it dumps them into clichés. What to make of this puzzling, condensed mix of the mundane and the melodramatic? It’s certainly unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
8. “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”
A gentle and heartbreaking fairy tale from Studio Ghibli’s OTHER master animator. Isao Takahata hasn’t gotten the stateside press of his colleague Miyazaki, perhaps because tonally he’s closer to Ozu than Disney – which is a film snobby way of saying he’s got a tendency to bum you the fuck out. “Kaguya” is no “Grave of the Fireflies,” but it’s a film bursting with equal parts joy and melancholy, as the supernatural protagonist grows away from the family and friends she loves and into the rigid mores of high society. Breaking somewhat from the traditional Ghibli style, Takahata’s watercolor-based drawings are dreamy and evocative; the Princess’ flight from her mansion is simply one of the most breathtaking sequences of animation in film history.
7. “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
It’s a dangerous place to go, that spot inhabited by art that tries to address the self-indulgence of art. Why do I appreciate “8 1/2” but despise “Stardust Memories?” I couldn’t even really tell you. But after repeat viewings, I can say that I still tremendously enjoy “Birdman,” the unexpected reveal from Alejandro Iñárritu that he does, in fact, have a considerable sense of humor – and more importantly, that he’s extremely willing to turn that humor on himself. Yes, that New York Times critic character is a misstep (or is she just another figment of the protagonist’s nightmares?), but let’s be fair to her – the play-within-the-movie put on by floundering actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) does look pretty god-awful. And that’s the point: not some great battle between high and low art, nor an insinuation that Riggan is an unfairly underestimated talent; just that self-expression, in all its forms, is always a struggle for fulfillment. I’ve seen films try to make that argument in ways far less engaging than an Ed Norton slap-fight.
For many of us, religious extremism is a violent intrusion into our everyday lives, a vague threat in the back of our minds pushed to the front by the savage destruction of villages in Nigeria, or a massacre in downtown Paris, or a horrific video flashing across the news. For those not blessed with remove, it’s just the opposite: violent, oppressive evil enacted in the name of god is a mundane reality. Abderrahmane Sissako’s measured, patient film finds the moments of beauty that puncture through the cloud of terror hanging over the titular, jihadist-occupied city: young men playing soccer, a cowherd guiding his flock, a woman’s gentle voice singing in the night. Cinematographer Sofian El Fani’s river-spanning, human-swallowing shot of the aftermath of a tragic confrontation might be the shot of the year.
You can read more thoughts on “Timbuktu” here.
In retrospect, A.O. Scott most likely regrets the timing of this piece, which questioned the ability of contemporary American art to tackle the great social-political issues of our times. It ran only a few scant weeks before Ava DuVernay’s film erupted on to screens with a relevance that the director couldn’t possibly have foreseen. There may have been better movies this year (only a handful by my count), but I daresay none that felt so desperately necessary. Out on the streets, protestors screamed that black lives matter, and on the screen Martin Luther King shouted glory, and for a sharp and scathing moment “Selma” wasn’t a movie but a mirror.
Even as the passionate moment in which it debuted recedes, I believe “Selma” will remain a lasting and powerful work of art. It peels back truths that we will never find in history books, creating a fierce and insightful portrait of social change. MLK, played by a quasi-possessed David Oyelowo, forms the film’s center but not its focus. This is a film in which activists, allies, community leaders, ordinary people and presidents come together to perform a complex dance, in which the pattern goes something like: two steps forward, one step back. DuVernay dares to show progress as stuttered, not a straight line – messy, complicated, human.
The greatest Bresson film that Bresson couldn’t live to make. Deeply felt yet staunchly unsentimental, Pawel Pawlikowski’s slices open a wound in history (Poland’s not-always-coerced participation in both the Holocaust and Stalinism) and calmly watches it bleed. It’s a painful road to take, but there is something in the frank, unflagging determination of the film’s two female to follow through on their quest to uncover the truth that makes “Ida” feel necessary and endurable. Both Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, as a young novitiate and her hard-living, disillusioned aunt, are extraordinary; they’re allowed to play fully formed, complex women, of the kind (you know, the realistic one with deeply personal motivations that have nothing to do with men) you wouldn’t find within twenty thousand leagues of Hollywood at the moment.
3. “Under the Skin”
Easily the most distressing and unsettling film of the year, Jonathan Glazer’s ultra-loose adaptation of the Michael Faber novel makes the unease of its alien protagonist achingly visceral with an eerie, shrieking score, uncannily immaculate cinematography and the perfect use of off-kilter special effects. Scarlett Johannson is revelatory (yes, I said it) in a role that seems made for her: as an alien creature inhabiting the body of a human woman, she gradually awakens to the horrors of all that entails, with just a furrow in her brow and a question in her unblinking gaze.
Do we have a word for the opposite of a sophomore slump? John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature “The Guard” was a fine dark comedy in the vein of his brother Martin’s “In Bruges,” but mostly a vehicle for the always-great Brendan Gleeson; his follow-up, in which Gleeson plays a Catholic priest attempting to do his duty in the small Irish village where an anonymous confessor has threatened to murder him, is startling, and not just in subject matter. As Gleeson makes his way through the rogue’s gallery that doubles as the town’s cartoonishly awful populace, the comedy becomes so black you can barely laugh what for all the soot in your mouth. But it’s the film’s underlying streak of sincerity that makes it quite so astonishing: McDonagh is genuinely concerned with what it means to have faith, and what it means to have that faith shattered.
Russia is not a place. Russia is a condition. There are few other countries on earth quite so concerned with the quality of their national character – and perhaps none that are so brutally and articulately self-lacerating about it. I wrote about this more at length in my piece about the film for The New Republic, but Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film is far more than just a critique of the Putin regime: it cuts through political trappings to the existential dread that has perpetuated centuries of authoritarian rule.
Look, this film was practically pre-programmed to top my end-of-year list. Zvyagintsev is easily the best and most important post-Soviet Russian filmmaker, by my mark; he’s drawing on a century’s worth of Russian cinematic tradition while staking out a mannered style that’s both idiosyncratic and cross-culturally translatable. Spiritual malaise is always likely to capture my attention (see three of my top five here). But no one else this year created a film of such fearful symmetry. Chilling, beautiful, bitterly funny and unsparing, “Leviathan” lived up to the human monstrosity promised by its title.
Ten more (it’s my blog, I can cheat): “A Most Violent Year,” “Foxcatcher,” “Inherent Vice,” “Mr. Turner,” “Dear White People,” “Nightcrawler,” “Force Majeure,” “A Most Wanted Man,” “Starred Up,” “The LEGO Movie”