I’ll begin with my usual apologies for making up a list at all. It’s a silly, self-indulgent thing to do, but I find it a useful exercise as it gives me an opportunity to remember all the good cinematic experiences of the previous year rather than dwelling on the bad ones or lapsing into some general (and unwarranted) melancholy about the death of cinema.
The list below comes with the usual caveat that my best of 2014 list is inevitably populated with a whole bunch of films from 2013. There’s an essay in that fact on the persistent delays in its global circulation despite the internet and all the technologies that promise, but do not deliver, simultaneity and availability. I’d like to say there’s a hard logic to what I included and didn’t, but in the end, it all amounts to whether when I saw a film, it still felt like I was seeing something that was “of the moment.” As a result there are several films that, even though they first screened at the Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, London film festivals in 2013, and appeared on critics’ best of lists for that year, still seemed sufficiently new for me to include here.
Correspondingly, there are a whole bunch of 2014 films that I just haven’t seen yet and thus aren’t featured here: Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (a particular disappointment as I wanted to have two years running where my favorite film was titled Leviathan), and Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy.
All qualifications, reservations, and hesitations complete, here are the films that made my 2014:
10. 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth/Jane Pollard, UK, 2014)
Forsyth and Pollard avoid the pitfalls of the conventional biographical documentary and craft, in collaboration with Nick Cave himself, an investigation into music and memory. The scenes that capture Cave’s 2013 LP Push the Sky Away coming together are fascinating, and the concert performances are exhilarating, but the finest moments here are the quiet ones where he is talking to friends and bandmates, from Warren Ellis to Kylie Minogue. The final shot, floating skywards away from Cave as he stands on the seafront in Brighton, is extraordinary.
9. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2013, Japan)
Kore-eda’s baby switch melodrama is sentimental for sure, maybe even a bit too programmatic in its narrative, but that doesn’t detract from its emotional force and power. There’s certainly no better director around at filming children (and the failures of adults) than Kore-eda and he somehow manages to captures all those small gestures and momentary reactions that structure familial and social interaction.
8. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, 2013, Philippines)
At 250 minutes, I was worried that Diaz’s film was going to be more about endurance than enjoyment, but in the end, and after some traumatic happenings at about the three and a half hour mark, I was ready to give Diaz even more time to wrap up his narrative. A loose adaptation of Crime and Punishment, Diaz’s film is a sophisticated meditation on history, memory, politics, and ethics both in the substance of its narrative and in several extended scenes where characters discuss and debate questions of moral responsibility.
7. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014, Belgium/France/Italy)
The structure of the latest film by the Dardenne brothers seems the stuff of melodramatic cliché: woman threatened with redundancy must convince her co-workers that they should give up their bonus to ensure so that she may retain her position. But despite the seemingly familiarity of this race-against-the-clock structure, the Dardennes craft a film which critiques and condemns the politics of austerity. The film presents a compelling portrait of the desperations of working-class Europe and the indignities of the individual in the era of fiscal conservatism. Also: Marion Cotillard is lovely.
6. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013, UK/USA)
Odd and absorbing, Under the Skin tracked the alien Scarlett Johansson as she trawled the streets of Glasgow in her white van looking for her prey. While some complained about its lack of narrative coherence, that’s precisely what I liked about it: the tonal weirdness, the abrasive soundtrack, and the stunning imagery all added up to an extraordinary cinematic experience.
5. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, 2013, South Korea/Czech Republic/USA/France)
A brilliantly imagined dystopian train tale that alternates between scenes of explosive violence and sharp satire. Tilda Swinton is at her best here, as a toothy Thatcher-type who sees the tables turned on her by the underclasses condemned to the rear of the train. An energizing allegory for the rigidity of class stratification and the violence inherent in the maintenance of the political status quo, Snowpiercer also offers a bracing vision of revolution and class revenge.
4. We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013, Sweden)
Tracing the adventures of three young girls in early 80s Sweden who form a punk band, Moodysson’s film is an energizing and energetic tale of teenage kicks. The film marks a return to form for Moodysson, whose films since the brilliant Together (2000) have been altogether too dark and despairing. We Are the Best! is charming without being corny.
3. Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, 2013, UK)
Hogg proves that all you need for a film is a man, a woman, and a modernist house. Exhibition charts the tensions between husband and wife, D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick), as they go through the process of selling the modernist London house they’ve owned and occupied for twenty years. She’s more attached to their home than him and this unsettles their relationship, as does the fact that his work (they’re both artists) has attracted more notice than hers. Exhibition is gripping study in anxiety, alienation, and the particulars of passive aggression.
2. Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014, UK/Ireland)
Not the biopic of Frank Sidebottom that the title seems to promise, but something altogether more bewildering and beguiling. A story of musical genius and eccentricity, Frank follows his giant papier-maché head wearing protagonist (played by Michael Fassbinder) into the studio and then to South by Southwest. His band fully believes in Frank’s vision, even if audiences are baffled by his performance. Part of the fun here is the way that it skillfully adapts and transforms Jon Ronson’s memoir of being drafted into Sidebottom’s band, but there is also a genuinely moving aspect to Frank’s idiosyncrasy, perfectly captured in his surreal yet sentimental song “I Love You All.”
1. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013, Poland/Denmark)
For me, Pawlikowski’s Ida was far and away the best film of 2014. Set in early 1960s Poland, it is the story of a novitiate nun who is told just before she takes her vows that she is Jewish. Pawlikowski’s film follows her as she meets her only living relative (an alcoholic aunt who fought with the resistance during the war and ascended to a position of importance as a judge before being deemed a liability due to her drinking) and pursues the truth of her past. Shot in black and white, every frame of Pawlikowski’s film is absolutely gorgeous as he and director of photography, Lukasz Zal, exploit the full expanse of the screen, often placing the protagonist at the extreme bottom or top of the frame to signal her vulnerability and uncertainty. After unearthing the truth of her parents’ demise, Ida must choose between the convent and conventional life. Her aunt provides one vision of a possible future while a young Coltrane-enamoured jazz saxophonist that she meets at a provincial hotel offers another. But I’m not giving any more away. See this film.
And, further evidence of what a strong year 2014 has been resides in this list of titles that I found it hard to exclude from the top ten:
11. Mille Soleils (Mati Diop, 2013, France)
12. Gloria (Sebastián Lelio, 2013, Chile)
13. Calvary (John Michael McDonough, 2014, Ireland/UK)
14. American Interior (Dylan Goch, 2014, UK)
15. Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014, USA)
16. Joy of Man’s Desiring (Denis Côté, 2014, Canada)
17. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2013, Taiwan/France)
18. Tu Dors Nicole (Stéphane Lafleur, 2014, Canada)
19. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke, 2013, China)
20. The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013, UK)