My challenge with this list is to compare what I’ve found to be the best made films of the year – the most technically brilliant, confidently directed, or otherwise prestigiously produced – with, well, my favorites. Part of the great discussion spurred by criticism is that these two superlatives, “best” and “favorite,” don’t always align. The hardest (and most interesting) essays to write are always on films that I recognize as being great, but fail to connect with. Then there’s those that are far from critical darlings that I can’t help but champion.
There were plenty of struggles this year, settling best and favorite, but not with my number one pick. Cinema in 2014 was full of stories concerned with legacy. Zero carried on Gustave H.’s legacy in The Grand Budapest Hotel, centuries-old vampires found romance in a dilapidated Detroit in Only Lovers Left Alive, The Dance of Reality reflected on a legendary filmmaker’s upbringing, and The Trip to Italy finds two middle-aged men retracing the steps of Byron and Shelley and wondering whether anyone would care to do the same for them. One film, though, steps outside these boundaries of interpersonal legacy. Director Jonathan Glazer isn’t concerned with what humans think of each other, but how a non-human would view our entire species.
1. Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer. We watch movies to transport, captivate, and sometimes even change us. For me, there was life before and then after Under the Skin. Every year one or two films just completely knock me over. In 2013 it was Short Term 12, but this year Under the Skin left me speechless and on edge exiting the theater. Glazer’s story of a seductive alien (Scarlett Johansson) sent to Earth to prey on mankind speaks to the post-modern obsession with the surface level. Scenes shot with hidden cameras and unaware participators add an eerie edge of authenticity, and point of view shots of groups of humans place us deeply behind the eyes of a non-human. Sharply stylized and haunting in its ambiguity, Under the Skin is not only my favorite film of the year, it’s one of the best films of the past decade. FULL REVIEW
2. Force Majeure, directed by Ruben Östlund. This Swedish genre-puzzler follows a family vacationing in the Alps after an avalanche fundamentally changes their domestic dynamic. Östlund is raising questions on masculinity and moral responsibility that audiences can’t stop arguing about – a wonderful bright spot for anyone disillusioned by binge-and-forget TV culture. It’s both slickly presented and impressively considered. FULL REVIEW
3. Stations of the Cross, directed by Dietrich Brüggemann. Another highlight of 2014 comes from Germany with this devastatingly affecting drama constructed of fourteen scenes, each carried out in a single shot. Stations of the Cross and its story of a young girl’s struggles with her devout Catholic family is simply one of the most arresting pieces of work, of any medium, I’ve ever seen. It’s a powerful indictment of religious extremism that’s as provocative as it is deeply upsetting. FULL REVIEW
4. Ida, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski. Ida lives in monochrome, and, like the best modern uses of the black and white format, we don’t feel any loss from the absence of color, only benefit. Uncommon, striking compositions make each shot its own truly great photograph. But while the camerawork in Ida may be expected in a film of this caliber, the sometimes youthful, jazzy spirit of later scenes certainly is not. A young nun is awakened to the outside world when embarking on a trip with her Aunt that will address the horrors of World War II, the delights of a life of sin, and the allure of romance. Delicate moments go unspoken in this very different coming of age story (I’m thinking of a shot of stained glass). Pawlikowski achieves a lot here, most of all in crafting a film that feels not only set in the 1960’s, but actually from that era. FULL REVIEW
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson. Just when I was ready to think one more idiosyncratic Wes Anderson epic could be the one to pushes his iconic aestheticism too far, he comes up with The Grand Budapest Hotel. Beyond being the funniest material he’s written in years, Anderson proves again (and again) that the pastel colors, symmetrically framed shots, and lavish wardrobes are not without the dramatic and structural makings of a real masterwork. I like all of Anderson’s pictures, but for the sheer audacity of using three framed stories with three different aspect ratios, The Grand Budapest Hotel is his most ambitious and mind-bogglingly successful adventure yet. FULL REVIEW
6. Winter Sleep, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. At this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, I saw 70-minute films that felt longer than viewing this 196-minute, Palme d’Or-winning character study. With a story in place only as the thread between the immersive, sprawling dialogue pieces that make up the core of the film, Winter Sleep is, above all, a dissection of conversation. As is expected of Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), there is also technical mastery here – I especially enjoyed the use of mirrors and wide shots to do the work of several shots in one – slowing down the editing pace and making each moment even more involving. FULL REVIEW
7. Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by Jim Jarmusch. Only Lovers Left Alive may have come early in the year, but I haven’t been able to shake it since. Leave it to Jarmusch (Broken Flowers) to make a vampire romance that’s just so damn cool. He brings the genre back to the adults, and uses his immortal characters’ combined millennias of experience to comment on today’s culture and sociopolitical status. A brilliant score by Jarmusch’s own noise rock band Sqürl provides the film with an otherworldly edge, and leads Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton provide us with a pair of blood-sucking lovers worth getting to know. FULL REVIEW
8. Two Days, One Night, directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. All hail Marion Cotillard in this enormously satisfying neorealist domestic drama that exposes working class hardship without sentimentality. The Dardenne Brothers direct Cotillard in her most raw and natural performance yet. Recovering from a serious bout of depression when she finds out she’s lost her job unless she can convince her co-workers to give up their bonuses, Two Days, One Night is tragic, hopeful, and, most of all, authentic. FULL REVIEW
9. The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent. A two-dimensional monster from a mysterious pop-up book comes to life to terrorize a single mother and her son in this inventive, must-see horror film from Australian newcomer Jennifer Kent. The hype for The Babadook is huge – with William Friedkin (The Exorcist) himself declaring the film an instant classic to the genre. I was blown away by Kent’s standard for storytelling. It’s so refreshing (and scary) to find the “Other” in a home invasion thriller actually carry thematic purpose to the overall narrative. With not a single jump scare to be found, The Babadook succeeds instead with thick atmosphere and unshakable moments spurred by the well-devised drama. FULL REVIEW
10. Echo of the Mountain, directed by Nicolás Echevarría. This penetrating, lyrical documentary follows the great Huichol artist Santos de la Torre while he participates in spiritual rituals in preparation for a new piece. I didn’t catch Echo of the Mountain until it won Best Documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival, but I’m glad that I made the time for it. Echevarría becomes part filmmaker part anthropologist with this beautiful portrait piece that’s as ethnographic as it is an artistic achievement in its own right. His camera follows de la Torre on a pilgrimage to Wirikuta where he, along with his family and a shaman, speak with the gods and spiritually prepare for his new mural, which is to convey the mythological history and practices of his people. It’s eye-opening, enriching, and my favorite doc of the year. FULL REVIEW
THE NEXT TEN
11. The Way He Looks – A perfect romance.
12. The Tale of Princess Kaguya – Transporting, stirring experience. Left in awe of its unfinished, hand-drawn art style.
13. The Dance of Reality – Jodorowsky’s semi-autobiographical return to cinema – bold, dense, and remarkably original.
14. Like Father, Like Son – A moving portrait of familial tenderness from master filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda.
15. Whiplash – Triumphant feature from a young director. Shows level of passion and pain necessary to achieve greatness.
16. Nymphomaniac – Depraved, shocking, explicit – all the makings of a classic from Lars von Trier.
17. The Rover – Brutal, accomplished post-apocalyptic drama. Captures dystopian despair better than The Road.
18. Locke – Tom Hardy alone in a car for 85-minutes. It works.
19. The Double – Visionary direction and a jaw-droppingly inspired use of small budget.
20. Venus in Fur – A sexy, unexpected monolocation film from Roman Polanski. Explores gender and power roles to great success.
INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL PICKS TO CATCH IN 2015
These picks were only shown in festivals in 2014 and therefore didn’t completely belong in the primary list. Keep an eye out for these international gems in the new year:
1. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai ri yan huo) – Spectacular police procedural following an ex-cop investigating a series of murders.
2. Speed Walking (Kapgang) – Winning coming-of-age story that’s as funny as it is tragically believable.
3. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Gett) – Crucially important film on Israeli marriage/divorce laws. Tense and emotive.
4. A Small Southern Enterprise (Una piccolo impresa meridionale) – An ex-priest moves into a lighthouse but soon shares the space with other loners similarly attracted to the isolated locale. Unexpectedly relaxing, maybe even therapeutic experience.
5. My Myself, and Mum (Les garçons et Guillaume, à table!) – Guillaume Gallienne plays himself and his mother in this film adaptation of his one man show. Concerns a boy who grows up with everyone telling him he is gay.
6. 1001 Grams – Totally unique dramedy focused on the life of a lonely woman tasked with transporting an extremely important kilo for the Department of Weights and Measures. Slice of life with an idiosyncratic twist.
7. The Fool (Durak) – Russian thriller that follows a low-level construction worker who realizes the collapse of a high-rise apartment block is imminent.
8. The Look of Silence – Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to the most important doc of 2013, The Act of Killing.
9. The Circle (Der Kreis) – Half doc, half narrative – tracks underground gay society in 60’s.
10. Free Fall (Szabadesés) – A woman falls from the roof of her apartment building and climbs back up to her room while a strange story unfolds on each floor. Absurd, visually delightful collection of short films.