Saturday, February 21, 2015

"2014 in review"

As the awards season comes to its climax with the upcoming 87th Academy Awards ceremony, most film critics have by now written top 10 lists counting down the best and worst films of 2014. Most film critics, however, are not film students with little time or money to spend on going to film theatres every week. Due to this regrettable (but necessary) limitation, this article will count down every single film I have seen in 2014 or early 2015 that was released into theatres the former year, including some films which premiered in film festivals in 2013 but were only given theatrical releases a year later – a growing and most exasperating trend. It will not, however, include films that were released in their home countries in 2013 but only reached English-language audiences in 2014 – such as Lukas Moodysson’s delightful We Are The Best! or Bong Joon-Ho’s ambitious but overrated Snowpiercer. Without further ado, here are all the 2014 films I have seen so far, ranked from worst to best.

The Bad.

48. Ride Along: A virtually laugh-free buddy cop comedy whose only remarkable trait – aside from wasting Laurence Fishburne’s time and talent – is a screenplay so generic and by-the-numbers that it might as well have been written by a computer programmed to follow Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! books. The whole enterprise’s failure is compounded by Kevin Hart’s annoying high-pitched antics and director Tim Story’s complete lack of comic timing.

47. Transcendence: Acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister tries his stab at directing, evidently hoping to studiously put everything he learned from Christopher Nolan to task. All he manages to do is condensate every single complaint against Nolan’s films – pretension, humourlessness, emotionlessness and shallowness – in one of the stupidest mainstream science-fiction films of recent memory. My review here.

46. The Salvation: A dull, lifeless, direct-to-DVD-quality western that wastes a terrific cast whose inclusion of Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green only makes you wish you were watching Casino Royale instead. Danish director Kristian Levring, one of the founders of the short-lived Dogme 95 movement, co-writes and directs discredited western clichés that even Lucky Luke comics stopped using, and does absolutely nothing to freshen them up, as if the mere fact of making a western in the 21st century was novel enough. Along with co-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, he conjures the usual stereotypes involving revenge over a dead/raped wife and dead child, corruption and land grabs but places absolutely no point of view on them whatsoever. The treatment of female characters is particularly unconscionable – with the exception of two, most of them end up either dead, raped or both and with little chance to make a lasting impression as people. Even Eva Green’s mute former captive of a Native tribe, despite her usual formidable presence and glare, fails her attempt at emancipation and exists primarily to get raped (off-screen) and rescued. The fact that this year saw the release of The Homesman makes The Salvation all the more of a disgrace to the western genre.

45. Maleficent: Walt Disney Pictures’ attempt to make a live-action feminist revision of their own 1959 classic animated film is a visually repugnant disaster, laden with ill-executed concepts and bad performances. My review here.

44. The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies: Towards the end of Peter Jackson’s likeable 2005 remake of King Kong, one of the characters remarks upon director Carl Denham’s “unfailing ability to destroy everything he loves”. Jackson’s identification with Denham’s unfettered commitment to fulfill his gargantuan vision was always evident, but I don’t think he realized just how much like him he would turn out to be. To look upon the overblown, overproduced, overacted, over-lit glorified video game trailer that is The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is to see a twisted caricature of its glorious predecessors, lumbering like a drunken beast in a green-screen set, only showing brief glimpses of beauty in rare moments of lucidity. What could have been a tale of sapient beings’ greed, rancour and selfishness facilitating their destruction by exterior forces of evil ends up becoming Middle-Earth’s very own Star Wars prequels. Like George Lucas before him, Peter Jackson saddles his actors with largely wooden dialogue, shoehorns a romantic subplot between two boring humanoids that fail to remotely resemble real people in love, introduces an equally superfluous and annoying comic relief character – in the form of Ryan Gage’s Alfrid Lickspittle (no, really) – and drowns most of his important scenes in digital decadence, as if he somehow lacked trust in the competence of both his actors and himself to liberate emotions and meaning naturally. Even a scene such as Thorin’s realization of the madness that has overtaken him, which could express itself simply by letting Richard Armitage do his job, is botched by unnecessary visual effects (the golden floor swallows him up – geddit?) and auditory flashbacks played in slow-motion with added spooky whispering effects. Daylight scenes appear fake due to the way characters’ faces are lit by digital sunlight, making these scenes look like excerpts from an unfinished Robert Zemeckis motion-capture project. It only reminds one further of how sad it is to witness talented filmmakers use technology as a crutch rather than a guide.

43. The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Fragments of two potentially good films are assembled together with no regard for coherence, pacing or feeling in a film that serves as an unintentional denunciation of how Marvel Studios’ multi-franchise assembly-line business model and its influence on big-budget blockbuster filmmaking. My review here.

42. This Is Where I Leave You: Tries to be a Jewish Death At A Funeral – using the pretext of a dead father to reunite a dysfunctional family and bring out their secrets and pains so that they may grow up by the end – but wades in a sea of stale chestnuts and platitudes that give their wonderfully talented cast so little substance to work with that the good quality of their performances is almost a miracle. Death At A Funeral was no comedic milestone but it at least did not presume to have anything particularly deep to say about family, grief or relationships and did not make persistent efforts to jerk emotion out of its viewers with maudlin guitar music and songs.

41. The Judge: Believable chemistry between an excellent Robert Downey Jr. as a selfish lawyer and an always reliable Robert Duvall as his estranged titular father is enough to make this overly-long courtroom melodrama tolerable to sit through. It is, however, insufficient compensation for its unceasingly aggressive assault on the audience’s ability to feel. Whether it’s using Jeremy Strong’s insultingly stereotypical Magical Mentally Disabled Person, Thomas Newman’s obnoxiously manipulative score or David Dobkin’s trite visual tricks (a flash of white on Robert Duvall’s head to transition to his flashback; slow-motion shots of him taking oath at the stand), The Judge spares no cliché in its struggle to extract the slightest emotional reaction from its viewers.

The Mixed And The Mediocre.

40. Deliver Us From Evil: I am led to understand Scott Derrickson is a talented horror director whose knowledge and understanding of the genre is such that he was able to cleverly deconstruct and reconstruct it into one film, 2012’s Sinister. Sadly, I have not yet had the pleasure of this film’s acquaintance, so I can only hope Deliver Us From Evil is not a fully representative sample of his work. While Derrickson certainly proves able to create a suitably creepy atmosphere and ably directs Eric Bana in a strong lead performance, Deliver Us From Evil rapidly dilapidates all the goodwill gathered from its premise by piling on clichés and hammer-headed plot points that cast the film’s “inspired by the actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant” disclaimer into serious doubt, and overusing jump-scares with such regularity that it wouldn’t be too surprising if it turned out Derrickson had hired a crew of programmed robots to shoot the film on autopilot while he went on to work on more important projects. Chemistry between Eric Bana’s lapsed Catholic cop and Édgar Ramírez’s streetwise priest keep the story afloat until the third act falls face-down in a puddle of unintentional self-parody whose highlights include a martial arts knife-fight between a demonically-possessed Sean Harris and Joel McHale as the wisecracking best friend cop who’s obviously set to die, and a climactic exorcism set to the Doors’ Break On Through (To The Other Side) shot and edited like an MTV music video.

39. Bad Words: Jason Bateman’s directorial debut is rather like the career of Eddie Murphy: After a promisingly provocative start, it gradually gets cold feet and retreats into safer territories, using crudeness as a masquerade in an attempt to make its audience think it’s still as shocking and edgy as it promised to be. My review here.

38. Get On Up: Constantly hopping between naphthalene-soaked adherence to Hollywood biopic rules and attempts to follow in the footsteps of Martin Scorsese, perhaps the most musical filmmaker alive, Get On Up only half-succeeds at capturing James Brown’s ego-driven intensity – and owes almost the entirety of that success to Chadwick Boseman’s electrifying lead performance. My review here.

37. The Theory Of Everything: Despite an incredible lead performance by Eddie Redmayne and the presence of a very moving Felicity Jones, this Stephen Hawking biopic does not rise above typical Oscar baiting. My review here.

The Disappointing.

36. Begin Again: John Carney’s second attempt at a romantic musical dramedy about the love that comes from the joy of creating music together falls short of Once’s simple heartfelt beauty, in spite of terrific performances from Mark Ruffalo and especially Keira Knightley. My review here.

35. The Drop: This Dennis Lehane crime drama’s murky plot proves less interesting than the characters participating in it, which include mob-connected bar owner Marv (James Gandolfini in his final performance) and creepy abusive stalker Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays him more like a wannabe tough guy than the dangerous psychopath he’s frequently described as). Standing heads and shoulders above those is protagonist Bob Saginowski, played by Tom Hardy in a quiet, semi-conspicuous performance that allows itself to be overshadowed by others in order to grow independently from them until it’s risen above them. He appears at first glance to be slow, shy and not too bright, and while later events progressively reveal a more dangerous and observant side to him, these new developments do not necessarily contradict the viewer’s original assessment of his character, but rather elaborate on it. The Drop is at its best documenting Bob’s chaste, tentative relationship with ex-junkie Nadia (the admirable Noomi Rapace). Hardy and Rapace have a spontaneous unspoken chemistry that Michaël R. Roskam films with the same empathic perceptiveness he had previously displayed in Bullhead’s scenes between the emasculated cattle farmer and the girl he fancied from his childhood who didn’t recognize him. Unfortunately, these scenes orbit around tales of double-crossing and past deaths that, much like Bullhead’s intrigue involving a dead detective and stolen cars, feel like extraneous hypertrophies that don’t interest Roskam as much as people do but that he nevertheless felt bound to develop as if they did. Because The Drop was not written by Roskam but adapted by Lehane from his own short story, his comparatively low interest for Cousin Marv’s frankly nonsensical plan to rip off Chechen mafia bosses sticks out considerably and harms the narrative’s flow. Whereas Bullhead made up for its mistakes by integrating most of its plot to the general theme of its protagonist’s damaged masculinity both physical and social, The Drop feels like it carries its crime plot like a burden.

34. Life Of Riley: It is sad that the final film of so bold and inventive a pioneer of cinema as Alain Resnais should be so lackluster, but it’s still required viewing for cinephiles and Resnais-ssance1 people everywhere. My review here.
1All apologies for that horrible pun, but since nobody else appears to have made it yet, I felt it my duty to oblige.

33. Obvious Child: Gillian Robespierre’s respectable attempt at making a feminist romantic comedy is ultimately a failure, shackled by romantic comedy conventions and Sundance-approved stylistic stereotypes that contradict its stated message of independence.  It does, however, boast a wonderfully heartfelt central performance by Jenny Slate. My review here.

32. Two Days, One Night: The Dardenne Brothers direct Marion Cotillard in an astoundingly unaffected performance but in the process allow themselves to be blinded by it and subsequently fall back on old directorial reflexes acquired from most of their previous superior efforts, resulting in a work of art whose bursts of raw power cannot overcome a disappointing sense of formula. My review here.

31. Foxcatcher: Steve Carell’s portrayal of closeted billionaire murderer John E. DuPont echoes Bennett Miller’s direction: Too transparently calculated and not empathetic enough to reach the lofty heights it aspires to, in spite of occasional flashes of brilliance. My review here.

The Decent.

30. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1: After a poorly-directed, badly-edited first film somewhat elevated by its appealing cast of characters and Jennifer Lawrence’s committed central performance, Lions Gate Entertainment ditched Gary Ross’s ugly attempts to imitate the already overrated Paul Greengrass in favour of Francis Lawrence’s music video-honed skills for the first sequel, Catching Fire. While neither the visionary Peter Jackson used to be nor as strong a craftsman as David Yates proved to be for the last four Harry Potter films, Lawrence nonetheless took better advantage of the extravagant sets and costumes of the Capitol and made better use of the titular games’ hostile environments. It also helped that all pretenses at criticism of reality television, state-enforced income inequality and mass surveillance (issues on which the franchise has shown nothing to say that hasn’t already been said with more insight in better works such as 1984, The Truman Show, Metropolis and WALL-E) were diminished considerably in order to focus more on the characters’ growth. In this film, his steady direction of first-rate veterans such as Julianne Moore and the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman (may he shine forever) and reliable eye for action set-pieces make it an agreeable overall experience, but cannot quite compensate for the missed opportunities offered by its themes of media war, masses manipulation and propaganda; ideas that an experienced music video director like Lawrence would be well-placed to explore but whose presence in a mainstream blockbuster carries implications he seems very seldom aware of, and subsequently does not explore fully. As a result, scenes such as Katniss’s visit of a hospital full of wounded anti-Capitol civilians that is almost immediately bombed afterwards, carry a lack of self-awareness that prevent the film from being half as insightful or subversive as its fans believe it to be.

29. Into The Storm: Are its characters one-dimensional clichés you’ve seen in countless disaster movies? Absolutely, unquestionably yes. But once you get past that, you realize that director Richard Quale makes a surprisingly ingenious use of the “found-footage” gimmick by openly acknowledging it as such. Rather than attempting to entice the viewer into pretending to think what they’re seeing is “real”, he takes full advantage of the multiplication of viewpoints that come with different characters and different in-universe cameras, in addition to his own omniscient camera. The true stars of the picture are, of course, the tornadoes themselves, and they do not disappoint; aside from the digital excellence with which they are brought to our sight, it is the overwhelming roars, howls and crashes they cause that makes the film the spectacular ride that it is. Junk food for the masses it may be, but to fully value the savour of a finely-cooked lobster, one must learn to occasionally appreciate a particularly tasty and well-manufactured McDonald’s hamburger.

28. Guardians Of The Galaxy: Hailed by many critics as this generation’s Star Wars, Guardians Of The Galaxy certainly replicates its plot beats (but not its plot) and some of its narrative elements to good effect but its jokey self-awareness, while entertaining, cannot shake off its calculated nature. My review here.

27. Big Eyes: Tim Burton continues his slow but steady climb back to quality with an interesting examination of art’s often complex relationship between quality and authenticity that gets hampered by excessive scenery-chewing and inappropriate Manichaeism. My review here.

The Good.

26. The Imitation Game: The life and work of Alan Turing are simplified and heavily dramatized in fairly typical Hollywood fashion, but Benedict Cumberbatch’s movingly truthful depiction of social abnormality elevates it above mediocrity. My review here.

25. Horns: In spite of a refusal to subvert gender constructs when it has the chance to, and a third act that backtracks into banal territory, Alexandre Aja’s rock-inspired visual acumen and B-movie sensibility transcend genre clichés in his vivacious adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel. My review here.

24. The Lego Movie: The fourth example of a rather worrying trend of films of varying degrees of quality whose would-be subversive posturing is betrayed by their inability to think outside the Hollywood box. The Lego Movie has a notable advantage over Bad Words, Obvious Child and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 in the form of often breathtaking computer-generated animation that tricks the viewer into thinking the Lego figures on screen are being shot in stop-motion, allowing extraordinary shots of brick constructions building and changing before the viewer’s very eyes. The speed and grace with which the act of creation is presented to the viewer speaks more eloquently about the life-affirming joy and excitement involved with such an act than all the hackneyed speeches about independent thinking vs. corporate conditioning present throughout the film’s third act. To be sure, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller’s success at inserting such a blatant criticism of the way corporate culture bludgeons imagination and monopolizes peoples’ hearts and minds so that they may all think and like the same things just because they are told to, is a considerable and praiseworthy feat. It is a shame, however, that they did not have the humility to examine themselves and their screenplay and wonder whether or not they applied to themselves the message they seek to communicate to their audience: For all the self-conscious winks and jokes reminding the audience of the formulaic nature of the Campbellian Hero’s Journey followed by everyman protagonist Emmett Brickowski, very little is done to actually deconstruct or reform it. By the end, the hero still gets the female lead to dump her self-centered boyfriend (Batman, a character whose rich potential for parody and critique is left mostly untapped) and persuades the villain of the error of his ways in a matter of minutes. If a sequel or spin-off is ever made, its primary objective should be to dig deeper into the western cultural psyche that enables mass entertainment’s tropes and their overuse to know such enduring success, points out their dangers and proposes new paths.

23. Captain America: The Winter Soldier: By addressing the dormant political subtext of the Marvel franchise’s previous films, connecting the American superhero mythmaking with post-9/11 moral greyness it and then rebuking it where Christopher Nolan’s globally superior Dark Knight trilogy partially embraced it, the McFeely-Markus-Brubaker team compensate for the Russo Brothers’ at-times faulty direction and suggest the Marvel Cinematic Universe may not be completely doomed to soulless pandering after all. My review here.

22. Belle: Its form may be a little too conventional to allow for a truly in-depth exploration of self-image and minority feelings, but Amma Asante handles the peculiar position her heroine finds herself in with perceptiveness and skill, helped by a career-kickstarting lead performance courtesy of Gugu Mbatha-Raw. My review here.

21. A Most Wanted Man: The limits of its insights on the moral murkiness of western counterterrorism and individual identity in a post-9/11 globalized world coincide with those of director Anton Corbijn and screenwriter Andrew Bovell’s aesthetic and intellectual inventiveness, but Philip Seymour Hoffman’s haunting performance gives it enough depth to elevate it above the dullness of many modern Europe-set thrillers. My review here.

20. The Two Faces Of January: Envy, lies and jealousy bubble under the surface until they explode to murderous results in typical Highsmith fashion, in this adaptation of her 1964 novel of the same name. As with The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers On A Train and Ripley’s Game, the attractive locations provide a discreet varnish for the strong element of class that opposes the two male characters: Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is a privileged Yale graduate who spends his time seducing and scamming American tourists, while Chester (Viggo Mortensen) is a seemingly archetypal self-made man who rose from working-class origins by conning investors out of their wealth. In this light, the catalyst for their increasing rivalry – Chester’s beautiful wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) and the obvious attraction between her and Rydal – appears more as a pretext than anything else. Indeed, Colette’s interest as a character owes less to her writing and more to the convincing way with which Kirsten Dunst illustrates the growing sandpit of anxiety and disillusionment she’s sinking in. Comparisons to the relationship between Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf are inevitable, and the later threatened exchange of murders recalls the premise of Strangers On A Train. However, the homoeroticism that permeated all film adaptations of these stories is absent, replaced instead by a Freudian undercurrent – Chester’s resemblance to Rydal’s late and rejected father becomes a plot point – that, while well-executed, cannot shake off a sensation of déjà vu. Still, Hossein Amini proves to be as slick and elegant a director as he is a screenwriter. Directing the triple-partnered emotional tango with a good eye for mood and clear confidence in his actors, he and editors Nicolas Chaudeurge and Jon Harris also display a certain visual wit later in the film in their visual depiction of Rydal and Chester’s separating and crossing of paths, rendering it akin to the disjointing and intersecting of the paths of two different liquids in glass tubes, whose journey will inevitably lead to their final and explosive confrontation.

19. American Sniper: Clint Eastwood films modern warfare with old-school technique that mirrors his values, but it’s his use of controversial Navy SEAL Chris Kyle as an allegorical figure for post-9/11 America that makes American Sniper interesting, even if Eastwood’s aesthetic framework and Jason Hall’s screenplay miss opportunities to make it even more so. My review here.

18. The Rover: Although it treads familiar post-apocalyptic ground, The Rover beneficiates from David Michôd’s impeccable command of mood and ambience, as well as very strong dynamic between Guy Pearce and an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson. My review here.

17. Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance): More interesting as the story of a man’s struggle for balance than as any meaningful commentary on the current state of performing arts or what it means to be a part of them, Birdman benefits primarily from a stellar cast led by a never-better Michael Keaton. My review here.

16. Lil’ Quinquin: Even at his most flawed, Bruno Dumont remains one of the world’s most important artists, as this darkly tragicomical film/TV miniseries reminds us. My review here.

The Very Good.

15. Noah: The quality of his films may vary, but Darren Aronofsky is one of America’s boldest filmmakers and Noah is an excellent illustration of how that boldness can be channeled into the creation of a work of art whose missteps enrich it almost as much as its strengths. My review here.

14. Edge Of Tomorrow: Comparisons to Groundhog Day are perfectly justified, given the fact that Christopher McQuarrie and the Butterworth Brothers’ screenplay (based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need Is Kill) similarly uses time loops as a way of improving his protagonist’s moral character as well as his combat abilities. The latter aspect of the story is what constitutes the film’s primary source of inventiveness, as Bill Cage’s repeated deaths and resurrections are consciously edited and narratively framed to imitate video games players’ ability to start over again whenever their character dies, learning from each experience and adapting their tactics accordingly. A premise out of which the screenwriters, director Doug Liman and editors James Herbert & Laura Jennings extract a pleasantly surprising amount of dramatic and comedic weight by letting the viewer live through every important beat of Cage’s day before skipping straight to the changes he makes, eventually reverting back to more traditional continuity editing that makes the moments where Cage reveals he has been trapped in the loop for longer than we think all the more shocking. Nothing especially thought-provoking, but one cannot help but admire the script’s smart mischievousness, the steely heart Emily Blunt adds to the story with her quietly weary veteran as well as the gameness with which Tom Cruise sends up his own movie star image (as a war propagandist who’s never seen a day of combat in his life, he at one point duplicates the awkward laugh from his infamous Scientology propaganda video) before evolving through experience into the action hero we know and love.

13. Locke: Ever since Ryan Reynolds and James Franco struggled to escape their predicaments with their lives in Buried and 127 Hours, cinematic one-person shows (or at least films where the lead actor is the only person on camera for most of its runtime) have almost become a subgenre of their own. In Locke, the elements of physical danger and peril that characterized the aforementioned films as well as 2013’s Gravity and All Is Lost are replaced by more personal stakes. The titular character is risking his life, but not his mortal existence. Writer/director Steven Knight films this straight drive toward social and familial doom in a wide variety of shots that multiply the angles and points of view one can get of Locke’s face and body from within his car, as if hoping to catch every beat and tonal shift he experiences as he instructs a coworker to carry out his job for him, informs another of his decision, confesses adultery to his wife, tells his son he won’t be home for the match and calls the woman he impregnated as she’s in labour waiting for him. Knight’s method, miles away from the quiet grace of Abbas Kiarostami’s road trips, calls a bit too much attention to itself at times, and Locke’s unnecessary backstory as an abandoned boy slightly diminishes his motivations by making them a desire to avoid (and possibly redeem) his father’s sins at least as much as a choice of personal responsibility. Nevertheless, these misgivings are mostly sublimated by the central performance of the great Tom Hardy, the only actor on-screen and thus the man by whom the film lives or dies. His calm sobriety and a complete lack of showing off even as Locke fights to maintain his composure is a lesson both in acting and on how crucial a central performance can be in carrying the crux of a film’s ideas.

12. Blue Ruin: Its stark yet oddly relaxing atmosphere makes Blue Ruin’s sporadic bursts of gory violence both shocking and all the more darkly humorous. Stripping the revenge thriller genre to its core, Jeremy Saulnier turns its codes and structure against it and exposes the fundamentally immature worldview it promotes. The violence is explicit but never cathartic; it’s a clumsy, messy and ugly affair that only causes laughter as an uncomfortable defense mechanism. Perhaps not as profound in its survey of the conflicted morals and feelings that factor in revenge as The Virgin Spring was, Blue Ruin is nevertheless a breath of fresh air in an era of films whose pseudo-realism perpetuates the sanitization of violence even as they pretend to show it like it is. It spotlights Saulnier as an interesting young filmmaker and reveals lead actor Macon Blair as a fascinating new talent to watch out for.

11. Interstellar: It doesn’t quite reach the astronomical heights of 2001: A Space Odyssey and other pioneering forerunners, but Interstellar, for all its blemishes, is possessed with the kind of daring and audacity that recent mainstream sci-fi cinema has been lacking in. My review here.

The Best.

10. Boyhood: While Richard Linklater’s insight into the life and feelings of his main character does not always match the scope of his project’s ambition, Boyhood nonetheless lingers in the mind many months after leaving theaters, and the fact that its simplest, most ordinary and less memorable scenes happen more often than not to be its best reflects its understanding of the value and staying power of the moments in life that seem the least important. My review here.

09. White Bird In A Blizzard: Gregg Araki surpasses soap opera schematics and bypasses criminal mystery altogether to concentrate on the much more intriguing inner mystery of a teenage girl’s desires and direction, delivering a coming-of-age story as insightful as it is sensual. My review here.

08. The Babadook: Half fairy tale, half realist psychological drama, all great horror; The Babadook is first and foremost a truthful and poignant cinematic representation of grief, depression and mental illness. My review here.

07. The Homesman: Tommy Lee Jones deconstructs the American pioneering myths popularized by classical westerns even as he honours the values they upheld, all of them incarnated in Hilary Swank’s fiercely proud gaze. My review here.

06. Whiplash: Jazz purists have heaped a great deal of criticism on Damien Chazelle’s sophomore effort for its ethically questionable view of what great art costs or even signifies, but the ambiguity of its position is just one of the many assets of a film that is as alive with the urgent need to create something great as it is aware of its dangers. My review here.

05. Dear White People: Far more subtle than its provocative title would seem to suggest, Dear White People is a sincere and unflinching examination of interracial relations and systemic racism that rarely lets politics get in the way of compassion and offers neither easy answers nor ideal positions to adopt. My review here.

04. Love Is Strange: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina become the very faces of commitment in 2014’s most life-affirming film, a sneaky emotional time bomb that derives as much power from the emotions and conflicts it eludes as it does from those it lays bare. My review here.

03. Nightcrawler: Under the double guise of a psychological thriller and a TV news satire, Dan Gilroy has made an endlessly compelling and multilayered film that’s as much about the act of filming as it is about the human needs and culture that allow that act to be misused. Slithering into viewer’s minds like a reptilian parasite, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance rules supreme over all others this year. My review here.

02. The Grand Budapest Hotel: Moonrise Kingdom’s wooden performances, cutesy attitude and rehashed themes of child rebellion and parental failures gave the worrying impression that Wes Anderson had run out of fresh ideas and ways to implement them. This makes The Grand Budapest Hotel all the more joyous a surprise to behold: By raising the scale of his story (very loosely based on several short stories by Stefan Zweig), framing its narrative in flashbacks of two storytellers and setting it in the twilight pre-WWII years of a fantasized Europe, Wes Anderson expands the nostalgia and Europhilia that has imbued his entire oeuvre into the very centerpiece of his film and looks at it with affection and pragmatism. Every Wes Anderson film has been crossed with a bittersweet longing for the simple joys of childhood fun and learning, but not since Rushmore has his nostalgia been subject to such poignant self-scrutiny nor his cinematographic grammar been so broad. More than ever before, Anderson acknowledges his immaculately composed sets, bright colours and carefully timed camera pans as means to disguise, rather than offset, his story’s morbidity. His world is a fantasy, one that sooner or later must give way to reality but not before admitting its nature and justifying its existence. Led by a masterfully comic performance from Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a moving apologia for escapism and perhaps the most complete film Wes Anderson has ever made about the ideas and ideals that nourish his work.

01. Under The Skin: Jonathan Glazer’s experimental study in otherness, what it means to gaze and to be gazed at achieves three remarkable exploits: It captures the meaningfulness of unimportant moments with more resonance than Boyhood and as much beauty as Wings Of Desire, it features one of the best female performances of the year in the form of Scarlett Johansson’s most complex and multilayered role yet and it evokes the best of Nicolas Roeg and Stanley Kubrick all while looking and feeling absolutely unique and new. It is a mesmerizing, hypnotic and unforgettable experience, and in spite of a somewhat underwhelming ending, it is by far the best film of 2014. My review here.
It has been overall quite an interesting year, one where large-scale visions of human nature contended with smaller introspections on American culture and history, trumping both competent-but-overrated attempts at subversion and gaudy CGI sludge-ridden blockbusters. Yet my vision is limited by the fact that I missed out a great many films that would likely have enriched my top 20 list. With the hopes that I catch up with all of them later, here is a list of the 2014 films I wish I had seen before the Oscars but sadly could not, in no particular order:

-          Inherent Vice.
-          Selma.
-          Gone Girl.
-          Wild.
-          Maps To The Stars.
-          Bande De Filles (known as Girlhood to Anglophone audiences).
-          Adieu Au Langage (known as Goodbye To Language to Anglophone audiences).
-          Timbuktu.
-          Mommy.
-          Enemy.
-          The Double.
-          A Most Violent Year.
-          Starred Up.
-          It Felt Like Love.
-          Only Lovers Left Alive.
-          Clouds Of Sils Maria.
-          Beyond The Lights.
-          Night Moves.
-          Calvary.
-          Winter Sleep.

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