Best Films Of 2014

by on December 17, 2014

There is nothing scientific about a Best Films of the Year list.  The films honored on any individual’s list reflect what the list-maker values in their cinema.  In the case of this particular list, those values include films that aspire beyond fattening a studio’s bottom line and cinema that inspires new ways of regarding the world.  “Only Lovers Left Alive,” “The Golden Era,” and “Blue Ruin” may not have been squeezed into this writer’s viewing schedule.  The Honorable Mentions List may consist of “Zero Motivation,” “Stranger By The Lake,” “Rich Hill,” “Asphalt Watches,” “Jodorowsky’s ‘Dune’,” and “The Square” because these worthy films pale compared to the ones that did make the final cut.  The films  on this year’s Best list include a historical head trip, a TV documentary series, and an answer to the “Up” series.  Starting from the bottom:

IDA—Pawel Pawlikowski’s little gem asks what happens when learning about your past doesn’t render you emotionally whole.  The person facing this dilemma in 1962 Poland is a Catholic nun who learns she’s actually Jewish.  She winds up going on an emotional Rumspringa to find her place in the world.

WHEN EVENING FALLS ON BUCHAREST, OR METABOLISM—Corneliu Porumboiu turns a potentially sleazy setup (director Paul tries to persuade lead actress Alina to perform a nude scene) into a springboard for intellectual discussions and quietly wry observations.

WE ARE THE BEST!—Lukas Moodysson provides one of the two best graphic novel adaptations of the year.  His warmly hilarious tale of a trio of female teenage misfits in 1980s Stockholm shows that being in junior high school is not a barrier to being able to proudly display punk attitude.

CLASS ENEMY—Cinequest 24 screened Rok Bicek’s Slovenian drama of a power struggle between a classroom of high school students and their officious substitute teacher.  It’s not a paean to teenage rebellion.  Rather, it’s a darkly disturbing portrait of the consequences of political mission drift.

THE SELFISH GIANT—“The Arbor” director Clio Barnard delivers this powerful drama about two outcast boys who fall under a junkyard dealer’s corrupting influence.  It’s heartbreaking to see the boys steal copper or illegally race horses to gain the dealer’s approval.  It’s clear the older man treats the young protagonists as very expendable servants.

SNOWPIERCER—The other notable graphic novel adaptation, Bong Joon-Ho’s futuristic actioner treats the standard “desperate downtrodden revolting against repressive overlords” plot as grist for absurdity and political satire.  Tilda Swinton hilariously stands out as a patronizing middle management overlord.  Having a pause in a life-or-death battle to celebrate the New Year makes weird sense in a film with more on its mind than settling on a “will the rebellion succeed” resolution.

A FIELD IN ENGLAND—Ben Wheatley’s English Civil War-set film tells of a cowardly scholar and some assorted companions who find their supposed haven from the war is actually the stage for an unusual power struggle.  This film is a historical drama that feels contemporary as well as a head trip which puts  class divisions into a metaphysical blender.

NIGHT MOVES—Kelly Reichardt’s suspenseful drama challenges a viewer’s understandings of the virtues of direct action tactics.  Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning play eco-activists plotting to blow up an Oregon hydroelectric dam with the help of Peter Sarsgaard’s ex-Marine.  Reichardt shows that the aftermath of taking a very visible direct action can be just as important as undertaking the action itself.

FORCE MAJEURE—Ruben Ostlund’s highly praised dark comedy ridicules the male-dominant model of manhood.  A model Swedish family vacationing in the French Alps suffers a self-inflicted crisis of cohesion thanks to the patriarch’s reaction to an impending avalanche.  Believers in the strong father-based family will hate Ostlund’s highlighting the emotional hollowness behind that supposedly ideal family setup.

THE MISSING PICTURE—Rithy Panh’s personal documentary takes on the daunting task of capturing the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia, given the absence of critical cinematic records.  His effectively disturbing solution is to use hand-crafted figures in dioramas to recreate life under the Khmer Rouge.   The film’s implication of lives ruined and a culture destroyed will haunt viewers.

AGNES VARDA: FROM HERE TO THERE—Agnes Varda’s curiosity and humanity powers this endearing world-hopping television documentary series screened at the S.F. International Film Festival.  Despite an awareness that she’s reaching the sunset of her life, Varda’s willingness to dance around in Second Life or regard the career awards showered on her with amusement demonstrates a spirit still in love with exploring the world’s creativity and beauty.

BIRDMAN—Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu’s comic drama skewers superhero cinema and artistic pretension in this tale of a former superhero actor (Michael Keaton) seeking artistic legitimacy points by mounting a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.  Yet as internal fantasy does a frantic swing dance with backstage drama, the viewer’s sense of reality is entertainingly held upside down and seriously shaken up.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY—Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment provides the template for Lav Diaz’ incredible 4-hours-plus epic.  Diaz expands on Dostoevsky’s classic to show how modern-day Philippine societal breakdown can spark both emotional grace in suffering and nihilistic destruction of one’s personal bonds.  This disturbing epic challenges the viewer to consider their reactions to living in a society incapable of change in any direction.

UNDER THE SKIN—Jonathan Glazer’s incredibly disturbing work cinematically flips the bird to Scarlett Johansson masturbators and genre-addicted viewers.  The longing of Johansson’s nameless extraterrestrial to try living human existence leads to her learning harsh lessons about the less exalted aspects of human behavior.

BOYHOOD—Richard Linklater’s amazing narrative epic acts as a dramatic answer film to Michael Apted’s classic “Up” documentary series.  Instead of following someone’s life changes over the course of decades, Linklater limits his tracking to the dozen years of his young protagonist’s childhood and adolescence.  The resulting film shows that both major moments such as parental divorce and minor moments such as a special screening of a Harry Potter movie equally matter in shaping a life.

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

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