Was 2014 a bad year for film? I’ve heard comments to that effect, but I saw a lot of good stuff this year. And, as usual, I missed a boatload of films. Below are some of my favorites in alphabetical order. I had no opportunity to see Inherent Vice, Leviathan, Wild Tales, Norte The End of History, Horse Money, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, or The Tribe. I missed Actress, Concerning Violence, La Jalousie, Nightcrawler, Goodbye to Language, Listen up Philip, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, and Life Itself, among many, many others.
All of that said, here are films that I really, really liked from 2014. Click on the linked titles for my past posts about them.
The Babadook (Kent, 2014)
One of the more hyped films from 2014 lived up to it for me for two major reasons: a creepy police station scene that speaks to the power of suggestion and costume design, and a preference for practical effects over computer-generated. There’s some awesome stop-motion animation and puppetry in here. And Essie Davis’ performance is fantastic!
Every year there’s a few films that get a critical backlash after an initially positive reception. I think Birdman is that film this year. Sure, the script isn’t perfect and there are a few eye-rolling moments and it’s not subtle (it sure as hell isn’t supposed to be subtle), but its blocking is artful, complicated, and exciting. I read someone compare this to Haggis asking why Inarritu gets a pass and Haggis doesn’t. Well – and I’m not even sure that statement’s true – it’s a bit of a cheap comparison. They both have intersecting narratives? This film is exhilarating.
One of my absolute favorites of the year. This film is moody and funny. It’s got some good old procedural bits, some fantastical moments, a lot of irony, and is damn gorgeous. It reminds me of a thriller version of The Fireman’s Ball or something like that. I like a film that can be bleak and optimistic at once and Black Coal really rides that line perfectly.
This film is bizarre. Destined to be a cult classic. I’m surprised it never hit Dogtooth-level this year. But beyond the bizarre (although, the bizarre is kind of enough to sustain it) is a fusion of biblical reference and allegory. The deadpan humor is hilarious and the violence really unsettling.
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014)
Boyhood‘s an odd one to write about. The plot’s not great. Only some of the acting is really good. There are a few awesome dialogue bits. It drags a little. But it’s a great example of process transcending all else. I mean to pull this thing off and come off with anything cohesive let alone something that actually holds some narrative weight is beyond impressive. I don’t know that I’ll long remember the film Boyhood, but I will long remember the experience of watching it.
Calvary (McDonagh, 2014)
Calvary isn’t exactly thrilling given the confessional-murder-threat opening, but it keeps a strange momentum – one of reflection and oddball comedy. That latter part doesn’t always gel. Some of the characters in here are in an entirely different film than the awesome Brendan Gleeson’s Father James (and maybe that’s the point, but it still doesn’t always mesh). Still Calvary is affecting and unexpectedly sweet.
Coherence (Byrkit, 2013)
I love me a good small sci-fi film and Coherence scratches that itch. It also hits a little close to home with a screenplay I’m working on (luckily for me not too close). There are some really great reveals and twists and the film does something that not a lot can: stays tense for its entirety. I’m getting a bit tired of handheld camera and loose focus, but the narrative here is strong enough that I stopped noticing it about 30 minutes in. The writing is quite clever.
I really like this film. It’s a great example of what good old-fashioned plotting can be. It’s a little tricky, but it’s really just revenge-upon-revenge that’s absurdly well-acted and tightly put together. It’s got that Charles Bronson feel and manages to be more than just blood and more blood.
I was so happy to watch a true blockbuster that I really liked. Edge of Tomorrow has the normal blockbuster traits: predictability, obvious characters. But it’s really fun and doesn’t settle for all of the obvious routes
I don’t know if many people liked this movie. I loved it. A lot. I’d guess it can get stiflingly tiresome for some. Or that the spider-symbolism can feel really heavy-handed. But it all worked for me. It’s a good puzzle and there will be (or maybe already have been) inevitable comparisons to Lynch’s Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive. Enemy‘s got a different agenda in its tricky look at masculine relations. It’s also scary, uncomfortable, and has a hell of a Jake Gyllenhaal performance. Dismiss it as stodgy retread if you want, or rewatch it and get lost in its unsettling world.
Force Majeure (Ostlund, 2014)
Is Ruben Ostlund the next big international thing? He’s got the Cannes pedigree and a number of masterpieces under his belt. Force Majeure is one of them. I’ve already cited a few films on this list as both funny and terrifying. Aside from maybe Black Coal, Thin Ice, I haven’t laughed really hard at a film and then sat icily quiet the next moment all year. Take out a mid-film-orgiastic party and a mysterious ending and you have a somewhat straight-forward, brilliant film. Add those in and the film takes on delicious layers.
Frank (Abrahamson, 2014)
I didn’t really expect to like Frank, but the trio of McNairy, Gleeson, and Fassbender win out. The masked singer premise might be gimmicky if not for a meaningful third act and a beautiful denouement.
My favorite “feel good film” of the year, Gloria doesn’t succumb to the conventions that that phrase often implies. Its eponymous character is unique without the quirk that frequently has to accompany that word. It’s a film that might make you want to dance. Or hug your mom.
Alongside Force Majeure and a few others, this could be a frontrunner for the Foreign Film Oscar. I love the 4:3 framing. Aside from the aspect ratio, the cinematography is gorgeous. The film is actually pretty simple, but gets real weight out of the odd couple relationship at its core.
The closest I get to a tear-jerker on this list. If you’re familiar with Koreeda you likely know what to expect – the emphasis on children and relationships. Minimalist and naturalistic. Buoyed by the great performances he always gets from the kids in his films (see We Are The Best! below for another competitor in that category), Koreeda has another fine film under his belt.
A great entry that I caught at Tribeca, Manos Sucias is maybe the Sin Nombre of this year: road movie with young protagonists and the threat of violence hovering everywhere. It’s pretty and has a great chase scene that takes up a good percentage of the film yet keeps its power.
A Most Wanted Man (Corbijn, 2014)
I really like Anton Corbijn’s films and here he perfectly captures that slow-burn le Carre feeling. It’s sad to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last theatrical appearances, but he nails the part. His Gunther Bachmann is sad and ferocious in his own way. He’s a perfect le Carre protagonist and the film is a nice companion to Corbijn’s last film, the underrated The American.
My favorite recent Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive is what you might expect from the director’s take on vampires, but that doesn’t mean it’s old-hat. The film is dryly funny, features gorgeous music, and is a beautiful portrait of two people (not) dying together.
The Selfish Giant (Barnard, 2013)
Maybe technically a 2013 film, but it didn’t get anywhere near me until this year. Clio Barnard’s film is a great coming-of-age tale. It kind of reminds me of Lynn Ramsay, or maybe Ken Loach. It’s so grimy and gritty but not without tenderness.
I would say that you could watch this on silent because the plot doesn’t really matter, but then you’d be missing some incredible sound design. This film is so pretty and inventive and fun. Maybe it’s a giallo-homage, but it doesn’t always feel like a giallo. It feels like a Cattet and Forzani film.
Stray Dogs (Liang, 2014)
Tsai-Ming Liang’s static-frame, long-take style is back. There’s some nice subterfuge going on here with an unexpected structure and a bit of female ambiguity (reminds me a bit of That Obscure Object of Desire in that way). Those long takes are – for the most part – incredibly moving, though some may take issue with the final 25 minutes being occupied by only two shots. My favorite part is a close-up of a struggling father, fighting against punishing winds.
Another one that’s borderline 2013/2014, but I’m including anyway. Jia’s film feels like it’s going to try to be over-clever at the beginning, but the anticipated intertwining narrative never really happens and the film is the better for it. Not for the prone-to-depression, A Touch of Sin is a somber drama.
Under the Skin (Glazer, 2013)
I read Michael Faber’s book prior to seeing this film, so my viewing was likely a little skewed. What’s telling though is that I can’t get a few scenes out of my head – scenes that were very different from any in the book. I’m convinced that you get a lot out of this film even with its loose plot. This film has the best score of the year (in years?) and proves that Jonathan Glazer is the real deal. Is haunting an overused description? If so, too bad. This film is haunting.
We Are The Best! (Moodyson, 2013)
How does Moodyson make these films? On paper they’re so corny but on film they’re incredible. We Are The Best! matches up with his best work and is also one of the best films about and featuring children I’ve ever seen. What awesome performances! What a great trio of characters! This might be the one film on this list that almost anyone would (should) like…
Wild Canaries (Levine, 2014)
…or maybe that distinction belongs to Wild Canaries, which is a constantly entertaining modern-day murder mystery in the vein of Rear Window or Manhattan Murder Mystery. Lawrence Levine and Sophia Takal are so good together.
A Few Others I Liked:
Diplomacy (Schlondorff, 2014)
Winter Sleep (Ceylan, 2014)
It Felt Like Love (Hittman, 2013)
Ten Best Films I Saw in 2014, Not Made in 2014:
10. The Confession (Costa-Gavras, 1970)
7. Sister (Meier, 2012)
6. The Border (Richardson, 1982)
2. Day of the Locust (Schlesinger, 1975)