As we entered the end of the year, I had a shortlist of candidates for my choice of the best films of the year, with an obvious first-place contender that I thought nothing was going to top. "Boyhood" held that position for the longest time, "Birdman" came close to topping it because it offered great artistry and craft, then I saw Andrey Zvaginstevs fourth feature film "Leviathan". I didn't know what to expect other than the fact I loved his previous film "Elena". I knew little about the film other than it won Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes, but as it unraveled it gave me a great emotion that echoed the emotions I experience as I watch the films by Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Andrei Tarkovsky. It offered great artistry and the a strength in it's direction and visual atmosphere that is skillful in its perfection. It was there where I realized I may have fond the true winner of 2014.
Here is my top 10 list of 2014. This was a very great year for cinema, and anybody who claims cinema is a dying art form aren't watching the right films. These films listed below can convince anyone that cinema is still the greatest art form. To view my previous top 10 lists please visit my Letterboxd archive at http://letterboxd.com/Mulhollandrob/lists/
The Top 10 Films of 2014
1. Leviathan (d. Andrei Zvyaginstev)
The fourth feature from Russian director Andrei Zvyaginstev, is the true triumph of world cinema released in 2014 (Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Winter Sleep" comes really close. The film is a shattering study of Putin's corrupted Russia. It's part psychological thriller, part political satire, and an unsettling family drama. The film explores a family that is forced off their property by local bureaucrats, which raises severe questions about the current state of Russia, which withdrew from it's Communist structure in 1991, only for the same corruption to continue. The film is very cynical in it's views about power structure, class, and greed. The film offers the most magnificent and ravishing landscape cinematography of the year. The film maintains the level of suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock film, and captures the spirit of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky. This is fully realized work of art, and a pure work of filmmaking genius.This is what cinema is about.
2. Boyhood (d. Richard Linklater)
"Boyhood" is a film that will stand the test of time, a cinematic landmark that is greatly assembled and unlike anything you’ve seen before. The film unfolds tenderly and gracefully, all the actors and talent involved in this film should be commended for the extraordinary commitment on this film. All the actors involved deliver naturalistic and empathetic performances. I truly believe everyone will identify and empathize with the material depicted in the film. The film beautifully explores how time can pass us by. During a conversation towards the end between father and son, Mason brings up a question relevant to both the film and reality he asks his dad, "What's the point of all of this?" As Ethan Hawkes character puts it, everyone's just winging it. But it's the mom's sudden realization as she says goodbye to Mason as he moves away from home, that life passes us by so fast. "Boyhood" is the most tender and emotionally poignant film of 2014.
3. Birdman (d. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu)
Hands down Alejandro G. Innaritu’s most audacious, most formally daring, and most magnificent film to date, “Birdman: or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” announces a triumphant return for iconic lead actor Michael Keaton, who already places himself as a strong contender in winning the Oscar for Best Actor. The sharply written script, which is very satirical in its exploration of stardom, pop culture, and narcissism, is co-written by Innaritu, Nicholas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo.
In many ways the film is a deconstructionist and witty satire on show-biz and broadway, where both worlds collide due to actors frustrations with Hollywood. Innaritu in his 5th feature, who directed the 2006 masterpiece “Babel”, as well as such other wrenching works as “21 Grams”, and “Amores Perros, here switches up his aesthetic and visual style. Staging each scene in singular, unbroken long takes that gives the film a theatrical and lively feeling. The result is magnificent and astonishing.
“Birdman” in a sense plays out like an updated version of Billy Wilder’s, 1950 noir masterpiece “Sunset Boulevard”, which is one of my personal favorite films of all time. Just as “Sunset Boulevard” explored aging in the entertainment industry, "Birdman" also suggests the insecure process that actors can’t face, the fear and reality of irrelevance. "Birdman", and "Leviathan" are the most visually pleasing films of the year.
4. Winter Sleep (d. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s new drama is intimate, astonishing and a haunting masterpiece about class, marriage, religion, egotism and power. Sounds like "Leviathan" right? Winner of the Palme d’Or at last years Cannes Film Festival. Clocking in at 3 hours 15 minutes, the film is not some unendurable art film. The film is epic on an emotional and technical scale. It's a stunning and illuminating work, driven by rich scenery and emotionally affecting human tragedy, and like "Leviathan" exploring it's homeland, "Winter Sleep" film explores the current political and cultural status of Turkey, a country that is conflicted as it's torn between secularism and an Islamic world. Watch the film for it's first 15 mins, it will hook you.
5. Under the Skin (d. Jonathan Glazer)
Visionary director Jonathan Glazer (Birth, Sexy Beast) first film in a decade returns with "Under the Skin". A highly visual, purely hypnotic work of artistry. The film is about an alien who kidnappes humans and absorbs their life to sustain her species. The story is actually the same concept of "Species" (1995), but Glazer takes a "B" movie sci-fi premise and transcends "Under the Skin" into something visually spellbinding and sensory. A film of great mood, atmosphere, feeling and tone. This is a true art film that can easily be compared to David Lynch's "Eraserhead", since it leaves the viewer with deep abstractions, eerie sounds, and luminous visuals. This is one of Scarlett Johansson's most brilliant and understated performances of the year.
6. The Immigrant (d. James Gray)
James Gray is the most overlooked artist of our time, a filmmaker that has never gotten the break he receives. "The Immigrant" which finally received a DVD release date of early April, which is almost one year from it's May limited theatrical release almost feels like an abandon treasure. A film that was greatly overlooked by its distributors--The Weinstein Co. The film is a luminous and heartbreaking tale of desperation, regret, sin, and suffering in 1921 New York, where impoverished immigrants fled to America for hope, and ultimately a better life. Marion Cotillard delivers the year's best performance as Ewa, a Polish Catholic immigrant who is forced into prostitution by a cunning pimp named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), while falling in love with her. Ewa holds disgust and regret for her sin, but does it so she can raise enough money to cure her sister who is being detained on Ellis Island who suffers from tuberculous. "The Immigrant" is a gorgeous and equally heartbreaking film, a film that gives glimpses of what we project of what our ancestors endured to get here.
7. Foxcatcher (d. Bennett Miller)
Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher:, a film that is being billed as a "true story" movie, however it doesn't fall into the typical true story trappings and cliches. What's brilliant about "Foxcatcher" is how Bennett Miller doesn't play into the typical formulas, in fact he builds the story up with imagery, visuals, and internalizes the characters mind-state. The story is a devastating chapter in American sports history. It's a very chilling and shattering film that doesn't leave you with simple conclusions. It just unravels with deep ambiguity, and the framing and visuals build up a brooding atmosphere that echoes the work of Andrey Tarkovsky, and Lars von Trier. "Foxcatcher" is a film that masterfully studies desire, the class system, and the co-opt of the American dream and American institutions.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (d. Wes Anderson)
A film that brought me great joy in every moment, with occasional side trips into deadpan humor, tender pathos, and slapstick. Wes Anderson's s combines his artificial approach into something that's hilarious and equally moving. IT's an exquisite approach to storytelling, memory and how art lives on. This is one of Anderson's greatest accomplishments to date.
9. A Most Violent Year (d. J.C. Chandor)
Out of all the recent American crime films released the last few years, J.C Chandor's "A Most Violent Year" was the most engaging and the most refreshing. Instead of using typical mobster stand offs with hitman, Chandor dives into the world of natural gas circa 1981 New York. "A Most Violent Year" touches on economy, power, greed, corruption, violence, and the co-opt of the American dream without feeling heavy-handed. This is the greatest American crime film since David Croenenberg's 2007 masterpiece "Eastern Promises".
10. Nightcrawler (d. Dan Gilroy)
Dan Gilroy's highly enjoyable thriller tells the story of a man whose risks, accomplishments and persistence allowed him to capture the American dream in the most unethical matters. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a career defining and tranformative performance as Louis Bloom. A man so devoted to elevating himself that he goes to extreme depths. He leads a very lonely life, and decides to become a "Nightcrawler", an industry term for cameramen who go out and find news coverage on brutal crimes that sell the footage to local media networks. Gyllenhaal embodies this character well, and Gilroy creates a brooding world of media frenzy and obsession. At the same they show Blom battling obsessions that finally overcome him as he tries to conquer all. The dreamer of the world of wanting financial and business success becomes the nightmare in a nightmarish world of exploitation , unethical journalism and business practices. Gilroy balances a riveting portrait of a tabloid modern TMZ era, and Renne Russo is brilliant as the newsroom director that laps up Blooms footage, together they form a wicked romance and mutual understanding of each other.
Runners-Up in Alphabetical Order
- "Gone Girl"-- is David Fincher's 10th feature, and it's one of his best. Self adapted by Gillian Flynn based on the best-selling novel, "Gone Girl" is many things. A satire on media frenzy, a study of deception, a deconstruction of modern marriage, and most importantly Fincher uses the camera as a brilliant visual motif, how it can shape and alter perception and realities.
- "Ida" is Pawel Pawilowski's beautiful love song to post-World War II Europe. Taking place in the early 1960's in Poland, the film is about a young Catholic nun named Ida who discovers she is Jewish, and that her parents perished from the Nazi regime when she was an infant. The film offers some of the greatest cinematography of the year, with ravishing black and white, and astonishing shot compositions of mostly wide shots to show Ida living in a world of revealing horrors and difficult truths.
- "Mr. Turner" stars Timothy Spall in a bravura performance as the great painter J.M.W Turner, a man who studies the landscapes around him that he later puts into his canvas. Turners paintings are now featured in museums around the world, and the film brilliantly gets inside the eccentric mind of a great artist. This is not a routine biopic, Mike Leigh gives the genre a refreshing and unique approach.
- "The Rover" was the most unsettling and disturbing film I saw all year. Directed by David Michod who did the 2010 Australian drama "Animal Kingdom", here creats a world of what an economic collapse world looks like. It's post-apocalyptic, impeccably made thriller in the vein of "Mad Max", and "Two Lane Blacktop". Telling the story of a drifter played to perfection by Guy Pearce, who sets out to find his stolen car that holds something valuable to him after it's stolen from by a group of bandits. Robert Pattinson is superb as a simpleton brother to one of the bandits, they find themselves caught in a world that has lost empathy.
- "Whiplash" portrays a world of artistic suffering and striving for perfection. It raises questions of what can create greatness. Can we become great artists if everyone around us rewards us and showers us with false compliments? Or do artists become greater with criticisms, and in the case of Damien Chazzle's electrifying drama, do artists need brutal confrontation to push themselves to be greater? In a virtuoso performance by Miles Teller, and J.K. Simmons , the film doesn't sugarcoat their rivalry, the emotional abuse, and ultimate odd respect they have for one other. The film shows Simmons has a conductor and teacher of Jazz who's set on discovering the next Charlie Parker. The effect here is maddening and thought-provoking.
Close but no cigar-other excellent films of 2014
The Babadook, Calvary, Citizenfour, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Drop, Enemy, Finding Vivian Mairer, Force Majeure, Jodorowsky's Dune, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Homesman, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Interstellar, Life Itself, Nymphomaniac, The Skeleton Twins, Snowpiercer, Two Days, One Night, Wild.
Most Overrated Films of 2014
American Sniper, Dear White People, The Imitation Game, The Lego Movie, Selma, The Theory of Everything.
Film reviews are courtesy of Robert Butler.