by InRO Staff Feature Articles Film Year in Review

Top 20 Films of 2014

December 31, 2014

There were times during this especially tumultuous year when it seemed as if the world at large was on the verge of collapsing. A whole commercial jetliner seemingly disappeared without a trace, leading some ostensibly serious news outlets to put forth honest-to-god inquires about the possibility of supernatural phenomena as the cause. A deadly virus that had been seen only in concentrated areas for a few decades since being identified in 1976 suddenly threatened to cause a mass outbreak of death and destruction yet again (and, for all we know, still might). And here in the U.S., the depressing death toll of black teenagers at the hands of white police officers reinforced just how much progress still needs to be made in American race relations (despite what our president may believe). 

In a stroke of coincidental timing, the nation’s enduring racism had its day in cinema this year too, in the pointed response of Ana DuVernay’s Selma closing out the year. About the history and people (notably, Martin Luther King Jr.) behind the 1965 civil-rights march from Alabama to Washington, D.C., Selma, intentionally or not, addresses a fraught present by reliving a frustratingly familiar past. That was just one film out of many this year, however, that attempted to fulfill perhaps the highest tenet of art: to make sense of the world around us, whether directly or indirectly. In a similar vein, Justin Simien’s Dear White People wasn’t afraid to directly address the complex realities of American race relations; other films, like the aforementioned Selma and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, explored present-day realities through the prism of recent or long-ago histories; and still others, like Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan and the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night, took broader and more allegorical approaches. 

But however artists chose to deal with the world as they saw it, the year’s best films tended to offer willing viewers different perspectives, whether through the 3D experimentation of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language or the big-scale 70mm outer-space yearning of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. And though it’s perhaps a stretch to call Language or David Fincher’s Gone Girl “humanist,” even at their most didactic or misanthropic, they uncompromisingly address the state of humankind. When one character says to another, “You are not nothing,” at the end of James Gray’s The Immigrant, it’s meant to confirm the value of their existence, despite it all; and the best films of 2014 confirmed this life-affirming belief through their sheer existence as well. The year might not have been so great for the world at large, but cinema churns on, as rich and deliriously varied as ever. Kenji Fujishima

The Homesman20. Western-genre traditions of gun-toting standoffs and visions of manifest destiny are put on hold for something far more unique, strange and unsettling in The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones’s directorial follow-up to 2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. A strong and independent-minded woman (Hilary Swank) and a drunken old codger (Tommy Lee Jones) must navigate the unforgiving terrain from Nebraska to Iowa to transport three women driven insane by frontier life. A stark and evocative portrait of determined femininity remains at the center of Jones’s wily and patient film until a jarring narrative pivot shifts its course. The stakes remain high while the film’s destination remains unclear until the moment when a certain character’s headstone is accidentally kicked into a body of water. The ripples that the object creates are aptly devastating given Jones’s take on histories forgotten and legacies lost. Drained of any sense of romanticism, the melancholic images captured by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto leave us dazed and shaken. Forget the indifference that greeted The Homesman at Cannes earlier in the year: Jones’s film is a new humanist classic. Ty Landis

Interstellar19. Though far from perfect—its prolonged prologue is mired in a patchily developed dystopian Earth and dogged by maudlin speeches on American resilience—Christopher Nolan‘s glorious space epic is appealing in part for its mistakes, a wild abandon that pushes the director through risky turn after totally ill-advised swerve and challenges the very resolve and imagination of its audience just as it does Matthew McConaughey’s star-struck explorer. A touch of pseudo-science here, a smattering of Neil deGrasse Tyson-approved science there, a head-scratching cameo to shake up a stagnating mid-section—Interstellar is a magnificently combustible thing, especially in the bulging IMAX display for which its intended. It’s also classically scaled in its avoidance of 3D and its vaguely Spielbergian absent-father narrative. Most importantly, though, Nolan so thoroughly commits to his obsessive cerebral gymnastics and striving transcendence this time that somehow he achieves a winning earnestness, the likes of which this filmmaker has barely ever glimpsed. As visual spectacle, Interstellar certainly earns its real estate in the sci-fi pantheon with its bravura CGI and practical-effects set-pieces—but at its center is Nolan’s pathological pursuit of human depth and feeling within his ambitious wankery. In McConaughey’s every-man performance, and his own vision’s absurd density, he finds it. Sam C. Mac

Gone Girl18. A trash procedural of the highest order, David Fincher’s Gone Girl drew apt comparisons to work by Paul Verhoeven and Brian De Palma, but the film’s multi-directional story and stone-faced brio is pure Fincher. He’s a director obsessed with plans, and Gone Girl’s meticulous structure mirrors the plot within the plot: a scheme whose delicious wickedness is matched only by its quasi-surreal precision, generating salacious thrills, pitch-black comedy, and cogent social satire in equal measure. Indeed, the film’s exploration of narratives makes it a sort of neo-classical exercise. The diametric plot lines, expertly laid out by screenwriter Gillian Flynn (adapting her own novel), indicate the relativity of human perspective, the influence media storylines and small-town rumor mills have on reality, the inherent fallibility of said reality, and the basic truth that all stories have more than one narrator. Each factor ultimately covers up the truth, a notion expertly surmised in a single image: the back of Rosamund Pike’s head. Drew Hunt

Calvary17. If you know the work not only of director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) but also of his brother Martin (In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, in addition to his many stage plays), the coal-black-comedy-fused-with-pathos sensibility of Calvary will be familiar. What is surprising, however, is the relative nuance and sensitivity with which McDonagh approaches the subject matter here. A whodunit in reverse, the story starts with Father James (Brendan Gleeson) hearing a confessor discuss both his childhood molestation by a priest and his intentions to kill him, a good priest, next Sunday. From that shocking opening, the film settles into a cutting character study of a flawed man determined to do good in a community laced with iniquity. It’s relatively well-traveled material, but Brendan Gleeson’s complex performance, full of grace and power, helps transcend any once-more-around-the-block feelings. In McDonagh’s world, there are few good and bad people, only humans raging against their existence as best they know how—a fact that McDonagh mines for painfully uproarious comedy and treasurable human insight. Luke Gorham

Leviathan16. Acting as fierce opposition to the current Russian government’s authoritarian aims, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is the harsh tale of a tyrannical mayor and the family who unwittingly stands in his way. While the stark visual prowess of Leviathan cannily underlines the decaying moral structure of Russian politics, its most notable feat is that it works so well as both a small-scale personal tragedy and an ambitious critique of the country’s flawed justice system, as Zvyagintsev is able to articulate how the impact of greed can filter down into the lives of everyday families at the mercy, indirectly or otherwise, of political motives. Brought to life by an outstanding set of actors, the film devastatingly details the impact of all-too-common issues among the lower classes, such as addiction, social alienation, and financial hardship, in an even more impressively socio-realist vein than we’ve come to expect from the rest of its director’s already remarkable oeuvre. Calum Reed

National Gallery15. At age 84, director Frederick Wiseman has made 41 films and shows no sign of stopping. After last year’s immensely pleasing portrayal of the money and politics running university life in At Berkeley, Wiseman has decided to tackle art itself in the vast collection of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London (though with money and politics still a prime interest). His camera stands still and the editing moves from painting to painting to sculpture to office at a glacial pace, but Wiseman trusts the viewer to make connections between these beautiful objects and the how’s and why’s of their presentation. With no talking heads nor probing interview-style questions, our intrigue comes only from what the camera sees and hears: the process of unmasking a different painting under a Rembrandt, a heated debate of whether or not to program “easier” art, and a lyrical closing dance all make this much more interesting than a standard info-laden documentary. National Gallery’s mixture of reverence and curiosity warrants its own space in the historic museum. Zach Lewis

Kaguya 14. The animated images may be enchanting in their watercolor textures and imaginative whimsies, but the emotions underlying Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya are earthy and sometimes brutal. The titular princess may literally spring forth from magical beginnings—a bamboo cutter discovers her in a bamboo shoot—and the film’s earliest moments throb with limitless possibilities as this girl sprouts into a woman in seemingly no time at all. But this woman, exuding so much thirst for life, soon finds her effervescence ground underfoot by, well, Japanese traditions: Her “father” may mean well by grooming her for a supposedly easy life of luxurious royalty, but it doesn’t take long for her to find it stifling, almost soul-killing. The tragedy at the heart of Takahata’s film is that its main character is perhaps never given the opportunity to fully grasp what it takes to live on this earth, warts and all, until it is much too late. If this turns out to be Studio Ghibli’s final production, one can hardly imagine a more fitting last hurrah: a work of both awe-inspiring sensuality and hard-earned, worldly wisdom. KF

Nympho13. Forget Magnolia’’s decision to chop Lars von Trier’s magnum opus into two parts: Nymphomaniac should rightly be seen as one whole work—and what a genuinely provocative yet unexpectedly humane work it is. Yes, humane—because what is the eternal conflict between intellectual detachment and rabid passion other than the essence of human existence? Leave it to von Trier to take this universal dichotomy to extremes, as exemplified by Stellan Skarsgård’s virginal professor hearing Charlotte Gainsbourg’s alternately liberating and sordid tale of her never-ending pursuit of physical pleasure, with the professor trying to fashion logic out of the illogical by making comparisons to such seemingly unrelated endeavors as fly-fishing. Funny at times, yes—but that doesn’t mean von Trier isn’t serious about digging into his heroine’s desires, which bring her into direct opposition with the strictures of “polite” society until she finds herself at a crossroads, deciding whether to forge ahead or conform. Far from being merely an extended act of perversity, Nymphomaniac is, in fact, a deeply empathetic work about how we all find ourselves forced to negotiate between our heads and our hearts, for better and for worse. KF

12. So vast are the gulfs of expression separating the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s recent output that an unacquainted viewer might never recognize the films as coming from the same umbrella. If Leviathan (not the Russian fiction film elsewhere on this list) dispensed with human subjects entirely to give uncanny materiality to the tumultuous internal workings of an industrial process, and People’s Park (as yet unreleased) celebrated a sheer abundance of people through a constantly mobile camera, Manakamana eliminates all superfluous noise. Composed of 12 relatively visually identical trips up and down a cable car in Nepal, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s minimalist observational exercise instantly implies a gentle contract with the viewer: keep calm, watch and listen. By stitching each ride together indecipherably in the darkened loading station, Spray and Velez invisibly facilitate an experiential continuity that encompasses a compelling breadth of visitors to the Manakamana temple. In hindsight, the film seems the hybrid child of the SEL’s strengths: The camera is just as in tune with a mechanical apparatus (the creaky, cyclical cable car) as Leviathan and just as engaged with human variety as People’s ParkCarson Lund

Stranger11. First and foremost an aesthetic marvel of an erotic thriller set in an unfamiliar environment and populated with unsavory characters, the real profundity of Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake rests within the non-judgmental, visually detached manner by which the director tells his story. Of the film’s many virtues—its disciplined compositions, its appreciably dense sound design, its note-perfect performances—perhaps its most haunting is how Guiraudie and cinematographer Claire Mathon’s masterfully oblique final sequence casts the eventual fate of the main character in supreme doubt. It’s easy to wittingly put yourself in danger after succumbing to the throes of lust, Guiraudie seems to be saying; much more difficult is dealing with the long-term consequences of that same relationship after it curdles and begins to fester. Not a wholly original observation, sure, but in dealing with this type of degradation with the formal sure-handedness of a classic Hitchcockian spine-chiller, Guiraudie manages to craft not only a singularly artful film about of the pitfalls of infatuation, but an extraordinarily scary one as well. Dan Girmus

Stray Dogs10. Supposedly the final feature film by Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liangStray Dogs is an episodically structured look at destitution, digitally shot in devastating tableaus that illustrate the dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, the callousness of late capitalism, and the psychological effects of urban squalor. Before cinema, Tsai worked in experimental theater, and though Stray Dogs is often “stagey,” character gestures and emotions remain almost stubbornly natural. This method, which Bertolt Brecht describes as the estrangement effect, is responsible for some of the most inscrutable yet endlessly wondrous images of the year: A rain-soaked human billboard advertises deals he couldn’t afford himself; a small, wooden rowboat nestled among swaying swamp grass recalls, in equal measure, The Night of the Hunter and the story of Moses; and, of course, a man and woman in a dilapidated room, awash in blue moonlight, staring at… something? Nothing? Everything. DH

Two Days9. A profoundly simple truth—that each individual life has value — is made infinitely complex in this latest masterpiece by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne. Two Days, One Night follow one woman’s depression as she must physically confront her own self-worth in this world by constantly asserting it to a series of colleagues in order to fight for her job. But the film turns a story of one versus the many into the story of one within a collective, playing out multiple morality plays as each individual carries their own problems to confront. The film’s precise mise-en-scène and framing are anchored through Marion Cotillard and Fabrizio Rongione’s deeply physical performances, while everyday objects—pills, water bottles, cellphones, doorways, radio songs—take on a heavy symbolic weight. With a less frantic handheld camera and a more elaborate plot, it turns out that the Dardennes would have fit right at home at Warner Brothers during the heyday of the pre-Code melodramas: Their supposed ultra-realism is simply a contemporary reshaping of Hollywood classicism that translates emotions into a physical presence—and here, into grace itself. Peter Labuza

Force Majeure8. Ruben Östlund’s wickedly funny Force Majeure is the sort of bold and, frankly, odd film that comes along very rarely. Working as both an engaging analysis of a family evidently missing the distractions of everyday life, and a satire on the battling insecurities of men and women in relationships, it illuminates the difficulties of separating one’s desires from one’s responsibilities. The story of a family wronged by its patriarch, much of the film’s comedy derives from awkward situations, as the group’s assessment of their importance to one another leads to many tense exchanges, the film’s French Alpine setting providing an appropriately chilly backdrop to the tension. With consideration of where the individual ends and the parent begins, Force Majeure evaluates the perceived nobility of parenthood as an apparent act of selflessness, recalling the humor of Whit Stillman in the way that it makes its characters’ concerns often feel hysterically pedantic and roundabout.  CR

Listen Up Philip7. On a purely superficial level, the acidic repartee on display in Listen Up Philip amounts to one of the most viscerally enrapturing cinematic experiences of the year. In a role that seems inconceivable for anyone other than Jason Schwartzman, he puts on a clinic of debasement and ridicule to nearly everyone he encounters, sometimes merely for sport while other times in defense of a deeply fragile ego hidden to only himself. The wonder of the film, then, is that its superficial charms (if you find bitter, narcissistic rants charming, that is) are only a teaser to the incisive psychological scrutiny carefully hidden beneath the sheen of serio-absurdist banter. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry digs into the nature of art and the artist—in the process drawing out career-best performances from Schwartzman, Jonathan Pryce, and especially Elisabeth Moss—in his best approximation of a Philip Roth narrative. But in much the same way that John Kennedy Toole’s classic novel A Confederacy of Dunces finds acutely personal, recognizable truths in the laughable pretense of its bumbling, self-important Ignatius J. Reilly, Perry’s film cuts deepest in exposing, through a distorted lens, the Philip in all of us. LG

Goodbye to Language6. With characters browsing Solzhenitsyn on their iPhones and quoting post-war philosophy instead of engaging in concrete dialogue, it may seem like Jean-Luc Godard is up to his usual “late period” tricks here. Then, it happens. The stereoscopic 3D stops registering its painterly depth as one camera departs the other’s axis to follow its subject, causing the image to split with one figure in each eye. In context, it works as a visual metaphor for the rest of the film encompassing man, woman, violence, nature and history. However, context or no, the shot is the digital age’s ducking from the train in the Lumière tent, a technical achievement signaling a terrifying new art. For the rest of the film, we follow two couples and a dog, often in high contrast color-grading and mesmerizing 3D. The sublimity in past literature, philosophy, and film is handed off to iPhones, digital cameras, and 3D in their conversations and in the very images onscreen. Even if he had never made Breathless, Contempt, or Histoire(s) du cinéma, the truly revolutionary Goodbye to Language would still make Godard’s name unparalleled in film history. ZL

Inherent Vice

5. With hazed-out Joaquin Phoenix stumbling his way through a vast conspiracy of corrupt cops, FBI stooges, undercover informants, shady real-estate deals and neo-Nazis, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice would seem to concern itself with the end of a certain kind of idyllic 1970s-era American Dream. But then Joanna Newsom’s mysterious narrator informs us that the film’s title is an insurance term meaning “anything that you can’t avoid—eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters,” signaling to us that Anderson is exploring the fundamental instability of that defunct dream rather than its demise. Characters like Doc Sportello or Bigfoot Bjornsen aren’t vulnerable because they believe in peace and love or law and order, but because they believe in anything at all. Both of their systems were already co-opted to begin with, because eventually people will compromise themselves for something they care about. In this upside-down world, it makes sense that the nefarious drug cartel at the heart of the story, The Golden Fang, uses an organization of dentists as a front. We all hate going to the dentist, but everyone has to at some point. Matt Lynch

The Grand Budapest Hotel4. “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” Art in the age of unprecedented violence: Wes Anderson’s self-conscious opus builds a Russian-doll narrative centered around Monsieur Gustav (Ralph Fiennes, giving a boldly intricate performance) as the last defense against brutality on the eve of a not-so-fictitious war in not-so-fictitious 1930s Europe. Fans of Anderson’s previous films will welcome his perfectly centered framing, detailed mise-en-scène, and deadpan humor, but The Grand Budapest Hotel dives deeper into the metaphysical necessity of his own aesthetics, with an emphasis on verticality in both visual compositions and passing of generations. The sparse violence cuts through the film’s shocking editing, the intricate plot continually builds through clever uses of the film’s assorted aspect ratios, and the blur between historical reality and fictive imagination adds a weighty dimension that complements the light, zany surface. It’s a film about keeping appearances at all costs, sustaining the illusion of an era when frivolous details carried another name: beauty. PL

The Immigrant3. A mirror box of American hopes and disillusionments, James Gray‘s The Immigrant may be set in 1920s New York, but its scope makes it timeless. Ewa (Marion Cotillard), an unmarried Polish refugee of the Great War, is pulled out of line at Ellis Island after her sister shows symptoms of a possible lung disease. Another immigrant, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), uses his influence to save Ewa from a fate of deportation, but the price is a series of compromises in pursuit of that ever-elusive American dream: to be happy. Gray positions the stuff of standard love-triangle melodrama as something more momentous: a rich tapestry of American iconography stripped of its majesty (Ewa plays Lady Liberty in Bruno’s burlesque show) as characters begin to resemble less the weight of their own moral convictions and failings than those of an entire nation. Crucially, Gray is as much concerned with the intimate implications of this parable as he is the broad ones, and more than anything his middle-weight masterpiece, and the superlative actors at its center, make The Immigrant about gestures of forgiveness, understanding and individual self-worth—as stirring a rebuke to America’s time-honored tradition of human commodity as the cinema has ever rendered. SCM

Boyhood2. Possessing a rare scope not seen in American cinema since Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful and chaotic Margaret, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood etches out its own sort of brilliance through the ponderous and maturing eyes of its central protagonist, Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). We watch as he ages from a six-year-old who experiences shades of loss for the first time as his mom (Patricia Arquette) drives him and his sister (Lorelei Linklater) away from their childhood home. Mason sits in the backseat staring out the window as his best friend, in the distance, rides a bicycle. The view of his young pal is eventually obscured by tall shrubbery, and during this brief moment early on, heartbreak has already set in. Boyhood resumes for roughly another 140 minutes with not only Mason maturing into a lived-in and empathetic 18-year-old, but with Linklater evolving as a filmmaker with a supreme handle on depicting the passage of time. At its purest, Boyhood evokes the possibility of change, hope, and reflection for not only Mason, but also for the ordinary people who have shaped him. TL

Under the Skin1. Aptly describing Jonathan Glazer’s endlessly fascinating Under the Skin in a thousand words feels like an unwieldy task; imagine aptly describing it in a fraction of that number, then. Glazer’s film is one of the greatest tricks of 2014, a picture centered on one of America’s most popular mainstream actresses—the luminous, multi-gifted Scarlett Johansson—that’s otherwise calibrated toward decidedly alternate sensibilities. Refusing to play to conventions and defying easy interpretations, even the film’s most basic summary feels like it’s dodging the question of what this thing is even about. We can all agree that this is the story of an extraterrestrial who comes to Earth, seduces men, and harvests their flesh, but that’s probably where all agreements end. Is the film a powerful subversion of the male gaze? An examination of the relationship between predator and prey? A treatise on what it means to actually be human? Or is it just a willfully weird movie that wants to toy with our expectations based on what looks like a case of marvelous stunt casting? In truth, Under the Skin is all of these things and much, much more; at moments, it comes closer to pure cinema than anything else released in 2014, elliptically presenting its ideas and themes in one mesmeric, ineffable, cohesive package. Andy Crump