It is that time of the year when with a heave and a sigh I launch my top ten list out among all the others, knowing that mere moments from clicking “publish” it will feel like a flimsy record of a really interesting year in cinema.
I had more than usual titles floating around near the top of the spreadsheet I use to winnow the gems from the past year of film journaling. And I agree with Richard Brody that it is worth highlighting various formal pulses in American cinema against a new global market much quicker to capitalize on the appeal of “safe independent cinema and its [Sundance, e.g.] award winners.”
The new mainstream feels like a cinema we can easily embrace. It is post-Hollywood. It is post-Sony email scandal. It has a “well-meaning tastefulness” that makes it easy to swallow. I would be curious to hear what films Brody had in mind when writing these paragraphs in his New Yorker piece, but I think the “Negative Ten” at the end of his essay offers a few clues. Boyhood, Whiplash, Birdman, and The Homesman are all solid films. End of year list-worthy, even. But when set against cinema from other quarters this year, they quickly fade into the background; their nuances and narrative choices all start to feel the same, like a conversation we have already had a few times.
Boyhood is the most surprisingly just okay film of the year. It is a good example of Brody’s claim that so much 2014 cinema looks like Sayles, but sadly lacks his “ardent sense of purpose.” For a film by Richard Linklater, filmed over so many years, the physical evolution of its actors, the life stories of a real boy, Lee Daniel behind the camera – it somehow fails to capture the highs and lows that make our own biographies feel so weighty and intransigent. By the end of Boyhood I felt as if the subject were so grand Linklater missed what he was looking for. It was an experiment that didn’t quite pan out. We are left with a film marked by a veneer of “well-meaning tastefulness” where we would expect something more honest, alarming, or both.
But it must be a pretty good year if something as epic as Boyhood isn’t an auto-draft pick. Even without the opportunity to see Godard’s Goodbye to Language here in the Midwest, I was challenged and puzzled by many unexpected forms and compositions.
And in hindsight there is a common theme running throughout almost all of these films, which is time and friendship in modernity. Our relationships are fragile things. They are made vulnerable by the isolating tendencies of ideology and financial stress. Maintaining our friendships over time is an act of bravery in a global economy that conquers by division. In many of these films, true companionship can be seen as a kind of courage. We are either able to hold fast to those close to us, or we lose our grip through ego or fear and drift off into isolation.
All in all, a great year. In order, from NY theatrical releases in 2014:
1. The Strange Little Cat (Zürcher, 2013)
See my review linked above, which just barely scratches the surface of this “nuts” film. It has only grown in estimation this year as one of the finest examples of cinema as a wild and untamable, yet classical mode of reconsidering the world. An incredible achievement for Zürcher. If you are looking for a film that will expose you to cinema as its own art form, here it is.
2. Norte, The End of History (Diaz, 2014)
See my review linked above. There are very few cases in which I would argue that such excessive length is necessary – but here is the first of two films on this list I would offer as examples. It is a relentless, secular, yet mystical account of the cost of human progress. It is also, via Dostoevsky allusion and forays in Filipino evangelicalism, one of the greatest theological achievements I have seen in cinema of the past few years.
3. Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, 2014)
A grand story – rich with comedy, noir, and oddly warming gestures of the version of humanity Anderson has called into existence through his films. Anderson somehow manages to retain the emotional essence of the genres he passes through with such ease.
4. Two Days, One Night (Dardennes, 2014)
There is a compelling moment in this film. A man breaks down at the edge of a soccer pitch, weeping in everyone’s sight in repentance, in sorrow at his role in the loss of a woman’s job. It is a deeply political moment, in the way of the Dardennes’ politics, as a small re-imagination of human trust and solidarity.
5. Trip to Italy (Winterbottom, 2014)
These Coogan and Brydon films are really odd. They are beautiful and irreverent at the same time. They are flooded with trivial pop culture yet steeped in the precision and grace of modern food culture. They are utterly superficial, yet kind and thoughtful when necessary. They are self-aware yet, in a trick of performance, also very much works of elaborate fiction.
6. Stray Dogs (Tsai, 2013)
This is the second lengthy film on this list. One entire ten minute sequence presents two of its four characters in a medium shot as they stare together at a wall. Its puzzling storyline skips around in time, substitutes in different actresses, and leaves only traces of performance. But it is, along with Norte, a work about shouldering the burdens of modernity. I think Stray Dogs is also, like Norte, a film about grief, which can only be felt over time within the moldering architecture of Tsai’s near avant-garde vision. Its two lead characters gravitate again and again to a wall on which was once painting mountains, sky, and forest. It has faded to hues of gray, like a promised land that has since vanished.
7. Listen Up, Philip (Perry, 2014)
Perry’s film feels pretentious, overblown, and full of lexical errors. But it is also very clever and true. The interior sequence of Elisabeth Moss navigating New York alone, post-break up, is everything right about American cinema right now.
8. Last of the Unjust (Lanzmann, 2013)
This companion piece to Lanzmann’s Shoah is culled from dialogues with the last president of the Theresienstadt Jewish ghetto. More often than not, Lanzmann just lets a cantor do the talking, or the names of Holocaust victims etched into synagogue walls the whispering, or slow pans across the fields of these recollections the work of history. Sometimes it kind of breaks down, as Murmelstein’s story doesn’t jibe. At other times the scope of Eichmann’s work is hard to comprehend. Lanzmann is, thankfully, not interested in connecting any dots for us.
9. Mr. Turner (Leigh, 2014)
It is, at last, a bit clearer how Turner arrived at his obsessions, his reputation, and more importantly – his sense of space and color. Every frame of this film could hang in a gallery – and in fact, a few of them do.
10. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch 2013)
The cosmic significance of Detroit through the passenger seat of its local vampire. Purves’ review nails it.
A few more to check out: Life of Riley (Resnais), Jealousy (Garrel), Winter Sleep (Ceylan), The Babadook (Kent), We Are The Best (Moodyson), The One I Love (McDowell), Snowpiercer (Bong), The LEGO Movie (Lord & Miller), The Overnighters (Moss), A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Amirpour), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata), The Rover (Michôd)
Undistributed gems: L’il Quinquin (Dumont), Jauja (Alonso), Voila L’Enchainement (Denis), Grigris (Haroun)