A Film Snob's Favorites of 2014

Another Year

I may not have seen any of the best films of 2014. I can’t afford to travel to film festivals. But these are my favorites of those I did see.

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino).

No film lived up to its title last year more than this gorgeous epic satire on modern Rome as microcosm of Western cultural decadence. I realize that the words “epic” and “satire” don’t usually go together, but Sorrentino’s story about a famous writer whose creativity stopped when he became a member of Italian high society combines the narrative sweep of an epic with darkly humorous social critique. As “Jep” Gambardella, Toni Servillo projects a sense of world-weary poise, and nostalgia for a youthful experience that perhaps was never real to begin with. Along the way, the film skewers everything from politics to modern art to the Roman Catholic Church. We revel in the luxuriant widescreen imagery while gradually coming to recognize the emptiness at the core.

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson).

This meandering tale of a stoner SoCal detective (Joaquin Phoenix), dedicated to his work but not all there, is a very funny and affectionate portrait of the 1960s, refracted through the cracked lens of the private eye film nor genre. Anderson’s screenplay captures the wry counterculture fatalism of Thomas Pynchon. Instead of the femme fatale, we have a heartbreaking hippie chick (Katherine Waterston). And who knew Josh Brolin could be hilarious? Throughout the picture we feel the ominous foreshadowing of a massive big business sell-out that ruined the good vibes for everyone. You’ve heard the phrase “I guess you had to be there.” Well, I was there, and this movie takes me back there.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater).

The film that took twelve years to make, a chronicle of growth from child to young man, with newcomer Ellar Coletrane, along with the rest of the cast, aging right before our eyes. The unique method of the film actually tends to obscure its actual intent and achievement. I expected something flamboyant, a movie of stylistic flourishes, but what I saw was almost avant-garde in its avoidance of the idea of story with beginning, middle and end. Boyhood’s real subject is the random and arbitrary quality of life, the floating sensation of the moment. In this respect, awkwardness is an essential recurring theme. The characters are perhaps as surprised as the audience that the passage of time is an elusive, and unattainable perception.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski).

In the early 1960s in Poland, Anna, an orphan and nun novitiate (Agata Trzebuchowska discovers that she has an aunt, and that her parents were Jews who were murdered during the war. The aunt (Agata Kulesza) is a judge for the Communist regime, bitterly sarcastic and disillusioned. The combination of the religious girl and the jaded aunt is very poignant. The drama is not in the usual mode of Holocaust memory, but in the tension between the allure of life in the world, and the desire to renounce it in order to find some kind of peace. Shot in beautifully crisp black-and-white, in a traditional square screen ratio, Ida pays homage both to the loss of innocence and a purer style of filmmaking.

The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh).

The title refers to Panh’s dilemma trying to make a film about his experiences in the Khmer Rouge labor camps in 1970s Cambodia, where he witnessed the death of his parents and all his sisters and brothers. With no visual archives to draw upon, he decided to design and help create clay figurines that would depict the people and events he remembered. When I heard about this I thought the film might be dull. I was so wrong. The carefully posed tableaux of the figurines seem vivid and real contrasted with the propaganda films that are the only records we have, some of which we’re shown, and which Panh, in his voice-over narration, analyzes to show how false they really are. An elegy for a country that is tinged, not with anger, but with deep poetic sorrow.

The Past (Asghar Farhadi).
Farhadi proves that A Separation was no fluke. An Iranian man (Ali Mosaffa) returns to his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) in France to sign divorce papers, but the situation is complicated by his wife’s affair with another Iranian (Tahar Rahim), who is still married to a woman that is hospitalized with a coma after a suicide attempt. There are also difficulties with Marie’s three children from different marriages. This sounds almost like soap opera, but the director is so skillful at making emotional connections through the dialogue and the scenes rather than through exposition, that everything seems effortlessly natural. Here, within this odd extended family, is much grief, anger, misapprehension of motives, and deception, all of course with the best intentions. And all conveyed with great tenderness.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson).

Anderson constructs beautiful worlds on screen that look simultaneously real and unreal. Here he moves past his usual theme of family neurosis to address a bigger subject—the loss of the ideal of humanist civilization, a way of life founded on intelligence, tender emotions, and respect for others. This ideal is represented by the hotel concierge M. Gustave, and in this role Ralph Fiennes gets to stretch and show his skill at comedy, which is considerable. The darkness of modern history seeps in a bit at the edges of the film, just enough to let us feel the loss of something beautiful represented so comically by the hapless, Quixotic, noble M. Gustave. The laughter in The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most comforting kind—the kind inspired by recognizing that childlike goodness still exists in the world.  

In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross).

This delicate, lovely film tells of two 14-year-old girls living in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 1992, a time of poverty and great unrest. Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeria, the two young actresses, were ordinary girls discovered by the filmmakers in Tbilisi, not professionals, and they’re wonderful. The style employs a lot of long takes with a moving camera, and this lends the film a gentle rhythm. At first we are just immersed in the girls’ daily lives, with the misbehavior and rebellion that is normal for teens everywhere. Eventually a plot emerges involving “brideknapping,” —a custom of kidnapping young girls and forcing them to get married. In Bloom was one of the hidden treasures of 2014.

Violette (Martin Prevost).

Emmanuel Devos plays the French writer Violette Leduc, who turned her painful childhood and adolescence into a series of novels and memoirs, famous for their groundbreaking depictions of female sexuality. Leduc was tormented by depression and self-pity, and Devos is brilliant at portraying her abrasiveness, vulnerability, and hostility. Her self-destructive nature plays out primarily in her relationship with Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain hits just the right notes of gracefulness and severity here), whom she adores beyond reason, and relentlessly pursues. Prevost has made a film that is as honest and unsparing as its subject.

Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry).

Jason Schwartzman plays Philip Lewis Friedman, an ambitious New York writer who has just published his second novel. Philip is brilliant, and also incredibly arrogant and narcissistic. He meets a famous older writer, a possible mentor played to perfection by Jonathan Pryce, who shares the quality of being a selfish bastard. Bad stuff keeps happening. With the help of a brilliant voice-over narration by Eric Bogosian, who over-explains everything in psychological terms, Perry manages to make the legendary awfulness of literary geniuses hilarious. And he playfully toys with the story’s narrative flow, letting Philip’s girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) take over the picture temporarily as she discovers her self-worth through realizing that Philip is a jerk. The film’s humor is hard to explain. It’s brazenly anti-romantic, not cartoonish but not taking the pain depicted too seriously either. Sui generis!

And here are the B-sides, all well worth your time:
The Immigrant (James Gray).
Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry)
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Gloria (Sebastian Lelio)
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
Like Father, Like Son (Hirakazua Koreeda)
Omar (Hany Abu-Assad)
Le Week-End (Roger Michell)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

©2015 Chris Dashiell