The Best Films of 2014

boyhood

1. BOYHOOD
I know, what a boring pick for the top of my list, but honestly, Boyhood was always going to be number one ever since I first saw it at a film festival in April. Richard Linklater’s most profound works scrutinize how the passage of time shapes our perception of narrative—think of the single-day spans of Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, the brief, connected-but-not-really vignettes of Slacker, or even mere existence or being as a philosophical construct in Waking Life. This is arguably more ambitious than all of them, not to mention flashier and blatantly driven by a gimmick. But the cumulative effect Linklater and his cast achieve is unprecedented, realizing a new way of seeing and storytelling only possible via the moving image. Time will tell how well Boyhood ages, but at present, no other film has affected me to the degree where I feel like I’m witnessing something both so singular and universal.

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2. MOMMY
Whether it becomes his breakthrough or not, Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature is surely a great leap forward artistically—and both his first and third films have already placed in my year-end top ten lists. Here, Dolan bespeaks a life experience that’s unexpected coming from a 25-year-old, but it’s the very thing providing a solid foundation for all the messy, emotional catharsis and outsized stylistic tropes on top (the rich soundtrack, the psychologically constricting aspect ratio, the costumes). As the title character, Anne Dorval is monumental (and might’ve been an Oscar nominee if she was better known outside Quebec), but don’t let that distract you from Dolan’s accomplishment—sections of Mommy are easily more poignant, breathtaking, passionate and sublime than anything else I’ve seen in years.

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3. A COFFEE IN BERLIN
Perhaps my favorite thing about participating in a group of indie film lovers is hearing about titles I never would have thought to seek out on my own. A friend from this group recommended this German film, which played for one week in Boston (as many foreign or indie titles do); it’s the type of low-budget black and white gem (like Duck Season) you immediately want to urge every person you know to see (and if you have Netflix streaming, you can do so today). Beautifully photographed, well acted and enhanced by a lovely, low-key score, it’s a charming, sharply observed, one-day-in-the-life miniature—the antithesis of any impersonal “event picture” that we have way too many of.

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4. UNDER THE SKIN
The most polarizing title on this list, and arguably the most innovative (even more than Boyhood). This loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel follows an alien visiting Earth, disguised as a voluptuous woman (Scarlett Johansson) through whose eyes nearly all of the action unfolds. As she discovers and adapts herself to the strange new world around her, director Jonathan Glazer encourages the viewer to follow the exact same process where the entire film is concerned—in time, the unknowable gradually, effectively becomes relatable. Finally building on the promise suggested early in her career, Johansson is a revelation, and so is the film, driven by startling imagery, an intricate sound design and the sustained excitement of continually leaping into the unknown.

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5. LOVE IS STRANGE
I’ve long admired director Ira Sachs’ films, albeit from a distance, always wishing for a little more; this Manhattan drama about a long-term older gay couple at last delivers it. That two straight actors portray them doesn’t matter, as both John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are touchingly convincing as life partners, contributing career-best performances. Their search for a place to live following an injustice that is the result of an act of devotion and love plays at times like a gentle comedy of errors, but ends up somber, suffused with meaning and quietly tragic. But it is really less a political film and more a nuanced look at familial relationships, personal spaces and conflicts that arise when there’s a less-than-ideal overlapping of the two.

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6. THE OVERNIGHTERS
An oil fracking boom brings thousands of men seeking employment to Williston, North Dakota. As demand exceeds supply, leaving many of these transplants homeless yet hopeful for openings, local Lutheran Pastor Jay Reinke opens up his church to shelter them in exchange for assistance with chores and adhering to a moral code as he sees it. In the tradition of Capturing The Friedmans, not all is what it seems in Jesse Moss’ illuminating documentary. As details accumulate and hidden intentions come to light, even the simple notion of wanting to do “the right thing” proves ever more complex and loaded—particularly as Reinke comes to an about-face regarding his own intentions.

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7. SNOWPIERCER
Whether or not South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language picture, a wild dystopian epic set almost entirely on a moving train is your cup of tea, you have to admit it pulls few punches. Like his other features (The Host, Mother), Bong’s latest is nearly unclassifiable, a heady mass of tonal shifts, a legit genre flick (in this case, action) but also satirical in parts, with performances both unexpectedly restrained (Chris Evans) and deliriously over the top (Tilda Swinton!). Most of all, you sense there’s a consistent vision finessing it all, ensuring the final cut entertains as much as it thoughtfully examines—in this case, the intricacies of class struggle.

WE ARE THE BEST!

8. WE ARE THE BEST!
Having finally gotten something out of his system after years of delving deeper into depraved, depressing subject matter, Lukas Moodysson has returned to the relative sweetness of his earlier work. Adapted from his wife’s graphic novel, this almost plays like a companion piece to Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In, roughly set in the same time and region (Sweden, early 1980s)—it has a similar intuitiveness and insight about pre-teen misfits, only here it’s an all-girl punk band rather than a boy in love with the vampire next door. It’s as uplifting and closely observed a coming-of-age tale as Moodysson’s earlier masterpiece Show Me Love.

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9. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Hyped as the world’s first Iranian Vampire Western, Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature is certainly that (though only a “Western” via its Morricone-inspired score) but also much more. To reference Let The Right One In again, it’s similarly just as much of a love story, albeit one with David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch running through its veins. Although she liberally borrows, Amirpour is an original talent in her own right—stylistically arresting for sure (gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, stirring placement of pop music) but also foraging a unique, texture-driven narrative approach that stands out in a sea of young auteur wannabees.

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10. FORCE MAJEURE
An average (if affluent) nuclear family vacations at a ski resort. Everything seems fine until a sudden, impending disaster, and more importantly, the father’s impulsive behavior during it. On the surface, Ruben Östlund’s celebrated film has the simplest of set-ups, but the real fun comes in its aftermath, for every action carries consequences. Rarely has an “entertainment” probed so hilariously, uncomfortably deep into examining how a split-second decision reveals so much of what’s present behind superficial domestic bliss and posed smiles for the camera. And don’t miss the twist ending, which slyly rearranges the family dynamic even further.

11. THE WAY HE LOOKS
A low-key, charming coming-of-age Brazilian film that completely understands the highs and lows of being a teen and never patronizes its blind, gay male lead character.

12. LIFE ITSELF
An entertaining celebration of Roger Ebert not only as the man who brought film criticism to the masses but also as an avid reader, traveller, raconteur, loving husband and occasional sonofabitch.

13. ARCHIPELAGO
Belatedly released in the US (along with two other features), Joanna Hogg’s 2010 film manages the neat trick of putting some of the most loathsome, irritable characters ever to grace a screen and render them (or at least their actions) approachable and sympathetic, even.

14. WHIPLASH
A ridiculous film, but also an exhilarating one. The reliable Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are both excellent as a student/teacher, servant/master pairing, but the real “star” is arguably director Damien Chazelle, who leads the film (and prevents it from falling apart) like a rogue, if talented bandleader.

15. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Although not as emotionally resonant as Moonrise Kingdom (or Rushmore, or The Royal Tenenbaums), I’m always happy to see Wes Anderson find a wider audience without diluting his ever-distinct sensibility (and I’ve never found Ralph Fiennes more likable).

16. THE ONE I LOVE
An ambitious, intriguing premise alone does not a make a film, but half the fun of this quirky, sort-of-sci-fi indie is in anticipating to see how (or if) they’ll pull it off. The set design and score are superlative, and Elisabeth Moss suggests she won’t have trouble securing work (or will get typecast in Peggy-like roles) after Mad Men ends.

17. LEVIATHAN
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s best since The Return isn’t as richly open-ended as that earlier film, but as a critique of Russian political and religious institutions vs. the individual citizen, it’s remarkably subversive, and, fueled by copious amounts of vodka, talkier and funnier.

18. NIGHTCRAWLER
Jake Gyllenhaal is wonderfully All In as an opportunistic ambulance-chasing videographer in this meticulously sleazy Los Angeles Network update that also features strong work from Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed.

19. INHERENT VICE
Speaking of sleazoid-L.A., I’m still processing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pynchon adaptation, but then some time passed before I unabashedly loved The Master, so I recognize this as an inscrutable but limitless text that I’ll probably gladly visit again and again.

20. WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW
Two decades after The Wedding Banquet (an early Ang Lee effort), here’s another Taiwan-related film about coming out of the closet, showing how far we’ve progressed since then (and also how other things never change), but this affably goes further, fleshing out an impressive ensemble cast with thoughtful, honest observations about fidelity, truth and the way we treat one another.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

The Babadook
Bird People
Birdman
Borgman
The Case Against 8
Citizenfour
The Dog
The Double
God Help The Girl
Goodbye To Language 3D
Ida
The Imitation Game
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Land Ho!
Like Father, Like Son
A Most Violent Year
Mr. Turner
Only Lovers Left Alive
Pride
Le Week-end
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One Response to The Best Films of 2014

  1. Howard says:

    I just put Force Majeure on hold at the library. Sounds like a great watch.

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