Here it is, two months after anybody might possibly care: my favorite movies of 2014. Needless to say, it was a busy, busy January and February for me. For what it’s worth, I tried to avoid looking at other top ten lists so I wouldn’t be influenced by them, though it wasn’t easy to do. I’ll admit—I’m relieved that I finally get to read the first 2015 issue of Film Comment.
In general, last year was a great film year for me. It was the first year that I was able to attend more than just a couple of movies at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival and found it excellently programmed. In fact, a number of movies on my top ten list were seen at the festival. Indeed, 2014 was such a good film year, that for the first time I have more than a handful of other movies that could have easily ended up on my list, namely:
The Unknown Known; Blue Ruin; Only Lovers Left Alive; The Lego Movie; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Jodorowsky’s Dune; Goodbye to Language; and Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
One thing that surprised me was how many good documentaries I saw. Usually, documentaries are so structurally conservative, privileging content over form as if form can’t say as much as content, that I don’t have much passion for them. That has been changing in recent years, and in 2014 there was a rich selection to choose from.
Before I get to my list, there are two more movies that I want to single out. They weren’t as strong as the films on my list, but I found them so entertaining that I thought they deserved special mention: Dom Hemingway, a funny movie featuring a somewhat paunchy Jude Law in fine mettle as ex-con Dom Hemingway—whose first act upon being freed is to beat the hell out of an old friend—with the always wonderful Richard E. Grant in a juicy supporting role as his best mate and confidant and The Double, an adaptation of a Dostoevsky novella that channels classic Terry Gilliam starring Jesse Eisenberg doing what he does best.
Finally, because the films are arranged in the order in which I saw them, the first film on my list was on many top ten lists of 2013. But as far as I’m concerned, if it’s released Christmas Day or later and I don’t have time to see it in the week allotted to me, it belongs to the next year.
Here, then, for what it’s worth, are my ten favorite movies of 2014:
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorcese’s comedies have generally been underrated yet rank among my favorite Scorcese films, so I was pleased when he returned to the genre with The Wolf of Wall Street. Granted, this isn’t a perfect film. It feels too long and begins to repeat itself toward the end, but its excesses suit the material, which depicts the kinds of chicanery that led to the financial collapse of 2008. Leonardo DiCaprio strikes the right balance of charisma and smarminess and Jonah Hill is a revelation as his messed up cohort. The ending, warning that we’re not done with this shit by a long shot, is as funny as it is indicting. For my money, this is the best movie Scorcese has made in quite a while.
Stranger by the Lake
Sexual monomania, the way it can mask everything but the object of our desire, if not that too, bending morality to accommodate the trajectory of our obsession, is vividly captured in this strange film. Franck is a handsome young man who daily goes to a gay cruising spot situated on the secluded beach of an idyllic lake. There he befriends a middle-aged heterosexual named Henri and becomes enamored with Michel, a hunky dude with a 70s porn star mustache, who eventually drowns his boyfriend under the lake’s sparkling waters. Unbeknownst to Michel, Franck witnesses the crime but, instead of turning Michel in, pursues him with renewed vigor. The film is alternately suspenseful, hypnotic, and purposely empty, the washed out, graphic sex scenes hardly erotic, and the obsessive repetition (Franck parking in practically the same parking space, the same people cruising) threatening to numb.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Well into Wes Anderson’s latest cinematic escapade, we are introduced to Mendl’s Patisserie, whose pastries are gorgeous pastel confections that are suggestive of Anderson’s exquisite film itself. The story centers on the attempts of Gustave H., concierge of the eponymous hotel, and Zero, his fresh-faced new lobby boy to exculpate Gustave H. of the murder for which he has been framed. Lowering over these events is an approaching war of unprecedented brutality, basically World War II, though the film is set in some fairytale world parallel to our own. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as Gustave H. and, as with Anderson’s other films, genuine melancholy and loss give depth to the whimsy. Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, whom I didn’t know people even read any more, Anderson strives to capture the Europe that Zweig thought was irrevocably poisoned by the evil of Nazism, a notion that drove him to a despair ending in suicide.
What there is of a story in Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs focuses on a homeless man and his two children fending for themselves in the urban wastelands of Taipei. Known for his long, luxurious takes, Tsai takes that tendency to breathtaking extremes in Stray Dogs, as in the bravura scene in which, for about ten minutes, the man and the woman who helps him and his family silently stand in an empty room in the dilapidated building where the woman lives, looking off-screen. The range of emotions the characters experience makes what, on the surface, is a static scene pulse with life. Reportedly, this is Tsai’s final film, and in those scenes in which very little moves and sounds barely murmur, there is a sense of emptying out in movie that is elegiac, as if the film itself were saying goodbye to film.
The Last of the Unjust
In 1975, Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, interviewed Benjamin Murmelstein, the last surviving of the “Elder of the Jews,” a title bestowed by the Nazis upon men they chose to run the Jewish Ghettos, who worked closely with upper-echelon Nazis in order to best help their communities or mostly to make it good for themselves, depending on whom you ask. As the sole surviving “Elder of the Jews,” responsible for running Theriesenstadt, the infamous “model ghetto” of Nazi propaganda, Murmelstein has been a controversial figure. While Murmelstein doesn’t accept the accusation that he is a war criminal, he doesn’t fully exculpate himself, either. As he says at one point in the film, “An Elder of the Jews can be condemned. In fact, he must be condemned.” “But,” Murmelstein also warns us, “He can’t be judged. Because one cannot take his place.” One can understand why, after all these years, Lanzmann put this film together—Murmelstein is a compelling, witty embodiment of the moral complexities of life under the Nazi regime.
The conceit of the film is simple: mount a camera in a cable car that takes people up to the temple of the Hindu goddess Manakamana in Nepal and record what happens. Made up of approximately twelve ten-minute shots, each shot an unedited ride to or from the temple, the movie is as austere as it is incredible. Not bound by a plot or a thesis, the film asks the viewer simply to observe, and there is much to see—one of my favorite scenes involves a middle-aged woman and her mother eating their first ice cream bar. One also gets, in glimpses, a personal history of the area, as some recall the days when they had to walk two to three days to get to the temple in what is now a ten minute ride in a machine that, one character speculates, was funded by one person. This documentary is from the Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Laboratory, which was also responsible for the documentaries Sweetgrass and last year’s Academy Award nominated Leviathan.
Undoubtedly, the most notorious fact about Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s movie about a boy growing into a young man, is that Linklater filmed it over the course of twelve years, one year for each of the boy’s years in school. It’s an approach that sounds like a gimmick, and perhaps it is. But the physical changes that the actors undergo over the course of the movie add existential weight to their development. And, in turn, Linklater has made a funny, observant movie about what it is to grow up during a particular time in a particular place—in this case, Texas at the turn of the millennium—while neatly avoiding the clichés of coming of age films by observing the normal, relatively non-dramatic events of childhood.
Under the Skin
Casting Scarlett Johanssen as an icy alien being who traps men with her beauty and then brutally dispatches them, skinning them, it seems, before turning them into a bloody slurry, was a brilliant move. She has always seemed part alien to me, anyhow, and along with Luc Besson’s nutty Lucy, 2014 allowed her to indulge that dimension of her screen presence. As creepy as the premise of Under the Skin is, though, it doesn’t really prepare you for this elliptical, oddly beautiful film that, ultimately, explores what it means to be human. Director Jonathan Glazer immerses you into what begins as a relatively wordless narrative, as we seem to encounter the world through an alien consciousness. The result is ethereally alienating, rendering even more breathtaking the moment when that consciousness first makes human contact.
Shot in gorgeous black and white recalling European art cinema of the 60s, the time period in which the film is set, Ida tells the story of a young Catholic novitiate in Poland who, just before taking her vows to become a nun, is informed that she must visit her aunt. Surprised, she’d been raised in the church as an orphan, told she had no living relatives, Ida encounters in her aunt a fiery, intelligent woman, a former state prosecutor, who reveals that Ida’s family was Jewish and had been almost entirely extirpated by the Nazis. They go in search of the family’s remains, questioning their beliefs—political and religious—along the way. Subtle and moving, it’s almost hard to imagine that it won the Academy Award for best foreign language film.
At age 84, documentarian Frederick Wiseman is still directing riveting films. National Gallery is his portrait of the National Gallery in London. Wiseman’s camera lovingly lingers on some of the masterworks hanging in the museum, just as it captures meetings debating the cultural role of the gallery, the value of art, and other scenes that reveal the prosaic work that goes into displaying art for the public to enjoy. As is his methodology, the film features neither narration nor interviews, but rather captures the vitality of the institution by listening in on conversations, looking at both great art and those viewing it, and feeling the rhythms of the gallery in the film’s editing.