What we do and why we do it: In one way or another, every film on my Top 10 list deals with these preoccupations. Several concern artists who continue to practice their craft despite a world that has moved on or never had a need of them to start. Others are about faith and how we cling to it or deviate from it because of the circumstances we encounter. Still more are about love and how we are able to feel so deeply for those who have hurt us.
Almost none of the characters in the films on this list planned the events that happen to them. Instead, they are thrust into situations in which they must act. For some, their actions are calculated, while others may react without thinking, but all are defined by how they act and how the people around them cope with the ramifications.
With one exception, few of the characters chronicled in these films will change the world with their decisions, but all this proves is that the little moments can often be the most devastating. For most of us, the choices we make will affect only ourselves and those closest to us, but it is that proximity of heart and mind that makes those choices all the more important. My top 10 films this year are about how we act when it is not our lives hanging in the balance but our souls.
Five other films hovering just outside the top 10 that deserve a mention: A Most Wanted Man; Nymphomaniac; Citizenfour; We Are the Best!; Winter Sleep.
The top 10 of 2014:
If this were a list of my favorite films of the year, Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank would be right at the top. Somewhat divisive among audiences, the film has a rambunctious, carefree attitude that is simply infectious if you can get on its wavelength. Though its subject is an underground rock band led by an enigmatic genius, the film has the audacity to take as its main character a wannabe artist who lacks the inspiration or talent to create. Seen through this lens, the film becomes a sharper, more cutting indictment of the world of art, music, and mediocrity
This is not to say the film is not a tremendous amount of fun from minute one until its poignant closing moments. As I have mentioned before, Michael Fassbender is unparalleled as the titular Frank, but the rest of the ensemble is doing amazing work as well, in particular Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domnhall Gleeson. The music is great, and there simply was not a film that delighted me more this year or about which I have thought more often. It is arty, inventive, unassuming, and downright great.
Paul Thomas Anderson has never failed to make an interesting film, and despite having nearly 20 years in the feature game, he has never made the same movie twice. Each film is its own distinct gem, and Inherent Vice is another. Sunny, breezy, smoked out, and paranoid, this is not only unlike anything Anderson has tried before – it is unlike anything nearly anyone has tried. Adapting a densely packed, digression-filled Thomas Pynchon novel, Anderson turns the story of a private detective in 1970s Southern California into a metaphor for the failures of the hippie movement to achieve lasting change.
A stellar Joaquin Phoenix leads a sprawling cast through a hazy story in which the laid-back attitude is all a put-on. Anxieties run deep in this film as mothers fear for their children, wives for their husbands, patriots for their country, and just about everyone for his safety. At the same time, it is an acid-trip love story, one last feel-good tale to mark the end of feel-good times. Everyone gliding through the plot seems to have the sense that the party is over, but rather than retreat, they throw one final rager with Anderson as the master of ceremonies.
Abel, played by Oscar Isaac, is an honest man in a dishonest business. A heating-oil magnate in early 1980s New York, he is fighting to keep his company afloat without staining his soul. The slow-burn drama of writer-director JC Chandor’s latest plays out against the backdrop of a city that is descending into hell. Abel and his rivals are desperate to succeed, and we understand why. Success means escape. At the start, Abel has already moved his family to the suburbs, but the violence of the city and the corruption of his industry follow him. He soon realizes he must choose between his conscience and his company.
Chandor is a master at tightening the screws on his characters, forcing them deeper into the holes they have dug until they no longer know which way leads back to the light. This is only Chandor’s third feature, after Margin Call and last year’s stunning All Is Lost, but already, he has proved himself to be among the best of his generation. Though set in the ’80s, Chandor’s preoccupation with modern America shines through in this work as it has in his previous two films, and the point seems roughly the same: We have lost our way in the darkness, but hope exists if we are willing to struggle.
Director Jean-Luc Godard is a giant of cinema. There has never been anyone like him, and there never will be. Along with his French contemporaries in the 1960s, Godard may as well have invented the art-house cinema, since if it did not exist before Godard, they would have had to build it. The most remarkable thing about him is that he is still innovating, still pushing the boundaries of what is possible in film, and still challenging audiences and critics to see the world through his eyes. At 84 years old, Godard has done it again with the equally baffling and enthralling Goodbye to Language.
I have never said this before and doubted I ever would, but if you see this film, see it in 3D. While most 3D plays as a gimmicky parlor trick, the third dimension is essential to the experience of Goodbye to Language. From his earliest days, Godard has always advanced a kind of pure cinema, experiential as well as experimental, and his latest film may be the pinnacle of both in his career.
A difficult sit technically with a complicated structure, confrontational imagery, and an assaultive soundtrack, the story may be his most relatable in years, if not entirely accessible or penetrable. It is enough to say the film is about living beyond expression and simply taking in the abundance of life while we are able. So, if the medium remains malleable in Godard’s hands, the message is timeless.
6. Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh
Art goes in cycles. What is fashionable today will be gauche tomorrow, and next week, a whole other set of criteria will be used to judge our world. Depending on the era and the medium, these cycles have lasted decades or passed in the blink of an eye, but just as nothing stays popular forever, nothing once popular disappears for long. History now knows JMW Turner as probably the finest painter to come out of England, and he enjoyed unparalleled success in the art world for most of his life. His unfortunate circumstance was to live long enough to fall out of favor in his own time.
Mike Leigh’s gorgeous biopic of the notoriously prickly painter, played by a never-better Timothy Spall, cuts right to the heart of the matter, depicting a world transitioning from the old ways to the new. A man of the sea, whose paintings often depicted the coastlines and ships of the world, Turner lives to see trains barreling through the countryside, making sea travel just a little more irrelevant. Toward the end of his life, the camera comes along, and Turner’s fear is palpable.
No longer will his one-of-kind paintings be the only connection most have to other parts of the world. Instead, a highly reproducible medium has come to democratize art. At the same time, the style of painting he pioneered and perfected has fallen out of favor with the critics and the elites. Turner is a man who devoted his life to his work, and as his work means less and less to the world, he reflects on what this says about his life. Films about artists are rarely this honest, insightful, or downright lovely.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is another story about an artist but one with much more modern preoccupations. The film will be remembered for many things, including the technical achievements of its cinematography, the welcome return of Michael Keaton to a starring role, and the takedown of the elitist critical culture, but its cumulative effect is greater than any individual achievement. As it shocks with its beauty, it cuts with its words and pleads for understanding from the depths of its thematic soul.
Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a washed up actor famous for a superhero he played 20 years ago who wants to shed that skin and be appreciated as a true artist. To do so, he mounts his own Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel, hoping to earn critical credibility and revive his fading star. Everything in the deck is stacked against him, and no one around him believes he will succeed – or that he should succeed. After all, who is he to adapt Chandler? It is just possible he is trying to take a shortcut to merit, and the world will see him for the phony he is.
All the while, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoots the film to appear as one unbroken take, meaning that while Thompson believes he is performing a high-wire act, we know he has already fallen and is spiraling into an abyss. The movie makes clear that Thompson is no longer a star. He is a meteor falling to Earth, and though his final descent is tragic, it is magic to behold on the big screen.
The first thing I picture when I think of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure is its blinding white scenery. I see it when I close my eyes, and immediately, Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto No. 2 in G minor” begins to play. The stage is set for an Ingmar Bergman-esque marital drama that hides beneath a thin veneer of black comedy. The bleakness and the humor collide off each other at every twist and turn, and by the end, you cannot tell if you are shedding tears of relief or crying in a fit of hysterics.
An almost too-perfect family vacations in the French Alps. They take group photographs and eat pleasant lunches and play with new toys, but they stand behind a façade, hiding from the world and each other. In the most dramatic way possible – an avalanche – the façade is broken, and all hell breaks loose. They are forced to confront the lies their family is founded on and made to question whether the lies are preferable to the alternative.
Östlund’s screenplay systematically dismantles everything this family knows about its existence, from the roles of the husband and wife to their relationship with their children to the institution of marriage itself. They are broken down piece by piece until they are left with nothing but the shards of a past to which they wish they could return. Finally, we are back in the harsh cold of a white-out blizzard, and these people must either trek ceaselessly forward into the unknown or retreat into the comfort of a time before the darkness came.
The evolution of Brendan Gleeson’s work with the McDonagh brothers has been a marvel to behold. It began in Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-winning short film Six Shooter and transitioned into the pair’s dark hit-man comedy In Bruges. Gleeson then teamed up with John Michael McDonagh to make the underrated and under-seen The Guard. This year, Gleeson and John Michael McDonagh came together once again and produced the best of the lot, Calvary.
It has all the markings of a McDonagh film, from the uniquely Irish milieu to the pitch-black comedy to the meditation on faith in a seemingly godless world. However, Calvary stands out as being two shades darker than anything preceding it and twice as thoughtful in its spiritual inquest. Gleeson plays a Catholic priest preaching forgiveness to a world that has given up on the idea. His faithless parishioners have little practical use for this holy man’s philosophies, and they are more interested in their next drink at the bar than in drinking the blood of Christ.
Still, the priest carries on as a shepherd imparting wisdom and keeping faith amid a flock of lost sheep. There is no victory to be won. In fact, he has already lost at the beginning of the story, but his calling is to try, in the face of hate, sin, and tragedy, to shine light on a bitter, cynical world. Though his journey may be fruitless, every step of it makes for riveting cinema, the kind to which I hope Gleeson and the McDonagh brothers continue to devote themselves.
Sometimes, world events conspire to make a film mean more than it otherwise might. Even without this context, Selma would be a brilliant film, but for the times in which we live, it is vital. No other film this year cut deeper than Ava DuVernay’s politically charged Martin Luther King Jr. biopic. Bold, confrontational, and impressionistic, Selma would not fit anyone’s definition of a classic biographical picture. Instead, it is a snapshot of a movement, of a time in history when change was possible if the people demanded action.
David Oyelowo embodies the passion of King as he leads the effort to ensure voting rights for African Americans in the South in 1965. He is weary from the battles he has already won and lost, but the fire burns brightly in him, and he is ready for the next fight. This may not be the historical King, but the film is not a documentary, and DuVernay gives us the King we need right now. With protests and riots flaring up across the nation, DuVernay and Oyelowo give us the version of King who could step off the screen and lead us to a brighter future today – if only that were possible.
The juxtaposition of pain and hope in Selma is almost too much to bear. For every step it takes forward, the movement King leads is beaten two steps back. This is the reality of progress. There are no giant leaps and few world-changing moments, but there are small victories that illuminate our path just enough for us to know there is still a brighter light ahead. We must continue to fight and break down the walls put up before us. This is the lesson of Selma, as vital now as it ever was.
Few films are capable anymore of stunning me into silence. I have seen and experienced a lot at the cinema and generally am unflappable. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan stunned me. Taking the biblical book of Job as its inspiration, the film is a shot across the bow of modern and historical Russian politics, skewering everything from bureaucracy and power to family and faith. It is bleak, oppressive, and perfect.
Beginning with the simple story of a man whose home is being repossessed by the local mayor, Zvyagintsev layers slight upon slight and indignity upon indignity until the crushing weight of all we witness collapses and suffocates us. Relief does not come quickly, if at all, for most of the characters. Instead, they are subjected to a long, slow descent into madness. They are tunneling to hell, and the more they try to claw their way back out, the more earth they bring down around them, burying them and pushing them further into the darkness.
There are no heroes, only shades of villainy, and all innocence is quickly snuffed out by the ceaseless misery of circumstance. Zvyagintsev creates a world in which no structure is safe from corruption and no foundation, however sturdy, is safe from collapse. Those who fight are beaten back down, and those who do not are beaten down more quickly. At the end of the day, no one is coming to save you – not your leaders, not your church, not your family. If you are to survive, you must find the will to do so within yourself before it is too late and that too is pounded into oblivion.
Thank you for being a part of Last Cinema Standing’s 2014 Year in Review. Click below to check out any of our previous Year in Review coverage, and keep coming back as we discuss this year’s Oscar race and the year in cinema that will be 2015.