Dec 23, 2014

Best Films of 2014

By Josh Oakley

Note: This list was revised on January 7th after getting a chance to see Selma. Also, see Selma.

10. Force Majeure (dir. Ruben Ostlund)
Force Majeure juggles a multitude of tones as well as any film this year, lurching from terror to comedy to existential drama. It pokes and prods at its characters while still understanding their perspective. The film is both judgmental and not, mocking the characters and their situations without ever being cruel. A shot of a man weeping is both emotionally stirring and hilariously over-the-top. Force Majeure shouldn't work, but under Ostlund's able eye it becomes a poetic deconstruction of masculinity and traditional gender roles. The story begins with a family who nearly go through a tragedy, and though physical disaster is avoided, emotional fallout stirs through the rest of the film. Gorgeously shot by Fredrik Wenzel, the icy mountain backdrops, and cramped hotel interiors perfectly capture the psychological trauma experienced by the central characters. Both darkly funny and genuinely incisive, Force Majeure is a dozen things that work well on their own, but have true power when combined. A bit like a family is. Or, more accurately, like we expect a family to be.

9. Listen Up Philip (dir. Alex Ross Perry)
The role Jason Schwartzman was born to play: a man so far up his own ass that he not only insults his girlfriend when she receives a dream job, he fails to see why she’s upset that he does so. From there, the relationship crumbles and Philip’s literary career soars, but the cost of living in such an isolated fashion is never forgotten. Alex Ross Perry shot Philip on film, giving the shots a warm, glowing touch. Sun pierces through windows, lending an almost impressionistic feel on occasion. Though no matter what the movie was filmed on, the best shot is an unassuming close-up, showing a mad flurry of emotion perfectly captured by Elisabeth Moss. By devoting as much attention to her character, and the others that fill in Philip’s world, Listen Up Philip does something its narcissistic protagonist cannot, extending empathy to everyone in sight.

8. Coherence (dir. James Ward Byrkit)
The next two films on this list show the multiple strengths of sci-fi; how it can be aided by both limitation and grandiose scope. First, the small-scale, in Byrkit’s Coherence. This is a tricky, intricately plotted story that begins with a group of friends having a dinner party and ends somewhere spectacularly different, yet, the same (this film has the best cut-to-credits moment by a fairly wide margin). There’s not much that can be said about the film’s plot without giving away the joy of watching it for the first time (and this coming from someone who generally cares little about “spoilers”), so some trust will need to be involved. See this film. It packs an emotional punch at the end, has some beautiful character moments (that were completely improvised), and knows how to deliver a twist without cheating on internal logic. Coherence is proof that all one needs to make a great film is a camera, some friends, and an incredible, mind-altering conceit.

7. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Now, in a complete turn from the stripped-down Coherence, the behemoth of Interstellar. A bloated, messy film that uses its faults to gain an immense and overwhelming power, Interstellar may be Nolan’s best film since Memento. The story takes Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) away from his family for both a couple of years, and for a couple of decades, depending on how you experience it. The use of time here is almost too much to bear, especially in a scene that proves McConaughey’s ability, and Nolan’s epic scope. Though the structure gets immense, it never leaves Nolan’s capable hands. He wields a finely-tuned emotional resonance through the expansive back-drop, culminating in a scene that apes 2001, turned many off, but left me weeping. Interstellar is a unique and grand vision, one that should be celebrated not just in the context of blockbusters, but throughout the world of filmmaking.

6. Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Inherent Vice is as deceptive as many of the characters at its center. The film leads you through a mystery that ultimately means very little; the tone is seemingly shaggy, but this a fully-developed world; the thematic weight seems shallow, but reveals itself as endlessly deep. This is Anderson's twisted, comically haunted version of early-70's Los Angeles. Charles Manson creeps into conversation, and death lingers throughout the career of our protagonist, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). But Anderson revels in the absurdity of culture clash, tracing some characters as cartoonish outlines (see Martin Short in a brilliant and brief role), and giving others waves of turmoil under a comic exterior (see Josh Brolin in the year's funniest performance). All of these pieces are filtered through Doc's drug-addled mind, giving the cinematography (the best of the year to my mind, by PTA regular Robert Elswit) a warm haziness that shrouds the truth while revealing the characters. Inherent Vice might be the most complete film of 2014, one that fills in all of the details and beautifully captures the milieu of this town at this time in history. PTA's Los Angeles may be littered with ghosts, but the world around them is gloriously funny.

5. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (dir. Isao Takahata)

No film this year was quite as beautiful as The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Isao Takahata’s interpretation of a 10th century Japanese folktale is beautifully drawn in lush watercolors, giving the film a delicate tone. The style of animation is most powerfully rendered in a scene that sees the titular character run from a life she never really wanted in the first place. As she becomes a blur, and magnificent robes fly off her body, the art grows increasingly impressionistic, capturing the chaotic beauty present throughout the story. The tale itself is straightforward yet powerful, culminating in one of the most gutting endings in Studio Ghibli’s history. Before that ending arrives, Kaguya presents a portrait of the sheltered and commandeered lives of women in the time period, though one that resonates through to today. News broke this year that Ghibli may be done making feature films, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya is yet more proof of what a tragedy that would be.

4. Mistaken for Strangers (dir. Tom Berninger)
The rock-doc has few unexplored angles at this point, so it’s welcome when director Tom Berninger largely eschews his focus on the band The National (fronted by his brother, Matt), in order to turn the camera on himself. Though that sounds self-indulgent, it functions as more of a confidence boost, zooming in on the black sheep of the family. Tom has always played second-in-command to Matt, and his screw-ups while functioning as a roadie for the band continue this trend. Then Tom returns home, and the audience gets a full, rich picture of both this brotherly relationship, and the wear-and-tear of Tom’s psyche over the years. In the end, the very fact that this documentary exists is the source of its emotional power. We’re privy to the editing process, and see Tom beginning to believe that his story is also worth telling. These large, weighty themes are couched in hilarious asides and a number of amusing cameos, but the messy heart at the center constantly shines through. This is a love letter to the underdog, made by one who knows the term well.

3. Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay)
I generally have an allergic reaction to biopics, so you can trust in my word for a movie that could have fallen prey to any number of its genre's cliches: Selma, a film that is tragically relevant today, is a masterpiece. Ava DuVernay's grand achievement centers on Martin Luther King Jr., but as a person rather than a historical figure. The film jostles between his private life and public leadership, fleshing out every corner of someone it is so easy to reduce to a figurehead. This is due in large part to David Oyelowo staggering performance, one that wisely cares more about the soul of King rather than any specific mannerism (though he captures the King we the public know quite beautifully as well). DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young give Selma a powerful verve, summoning gorgeous images that most biopics forget to even attempt. A number of scenes are overwhelming on their own (one featuring King comforting an older man after a tragic death is among the most gutting of the year), but Selma, like the movement it captures, is a rolling giant, culminating in a final montage and speech that prove the importance of this man, this cause, and this film.

2. Love is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs)
Tender and achingly lived-in, Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange is a portrait of an aging couple in New York City that gives tremendous depth to the seemingly simplistic idea featured in its title. All aspects of love are captured here, from the romantic swooning that somehow lasts decades, to the quiet bonding between two family members from vastly different generations. Every performance is precise and authentic, but John Lithgow gives what might be the best of the year in the way he captures his character’s tics and observed habits without ever once feeling false. The film’s plot is loose; Sachs is mainly interested in the nearly invisible ways we communicate with loved ones, and how love can either burn brighter or fade away with time. A shatteringly powerful ending is but one layer of this near-masterpiece, a film so rich in human experience that it almost hurts to watch.

1. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)
“The power of Boyhood is rooted in its main character, but his family provides the scope, showing how the tiny, seemingly insignificant moments of our life wind up changing and defining who we are.”

Read my year-end thoughts at CutPrintFilm (#5 on that list). This isn’t just my favorite of the year, but one of my new all-time loves.

The Next Twenty: 

11. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)
12. The Double (dir. Richard Ayoade)
13. Happy Valley (dir. Amir Bar-Lev)
14. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)
15. Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras)
16. The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent)
17. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)
18. Obvious Child (dir. Gillian Robespierre)
19. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (dir. Matt Reeves)
20. Land Ho! (dir. Aaron Katz & Martha Stephens)
21. Frank (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
22. Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
23. Life Itself (dir. Steve James)
24. Palo Alto (dir. Gia Coppola)
25. We Are the Best! (dir. Lukas Moodysson)
26. Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman)
27. Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn)
28. Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallee)
29. Dear White People (dir. Justin Simien)
30. The Lego Movie (dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)

You can take a look at these films on my Letterboxd list. There, you’ll also find some other picks for my favorite film-related things of the year, including my top twenty performances.


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