31 December 2014

Best of 2014: Cinema

Few years in recent memory have felt as lousy as 2014. I fear that I might make such a claim every year, but in looking back, it's been a while since I've struggled to put together ten films from a given year that I could call "the ten best films of the year" or even "my top 10," if I'm trying to keep things more subjective. While cinema seemed to stand still, I saw far more impressive work on television this year, as TV continues to "up its game" on nearly all fronts (well, maybe not CBS). HBO's The Comeback and Olive Kitteridge, Comedy Central's Broad City, and Amazon Prime's Transparent all stood taller than any of the new films I saw this past year—a claim my snobby, cinema purist 21-year-old self would scoffed at if he heard me say it.

This year, I noticed critics and audiences grabbing hold of a bunch of films whose flaws (or lack of charisma) tended to outweigh the strengths. From impressive feats like Boyhood to above-average sci-fi actioners like Snowpiercer to avant-garde critical darlings like Under the Skin to standard, moderately spooky horror yarns like The Babadook, so few films managed to shake me in the ways my top 5 of 2013 did—Stranger by the Lake, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Top of the Lake (which I would have disqualified from the list if I had known it would be returning for a second series), Bastards, and Spring Breakers. For at least those five, I had zero reservations singing my praise about them.

With each of the 2014 films I've chosen (some of which are festival leftovers from 2013 that had a U.S. theatrical run during this calendar year), there's a hesitation I feel in each one. I was impressed on different levels by them all, or I wouldn't have made this list, but something's still missing. In an attempt to focus on the strengths of the films I've listed over the weaknesses, I've decided to leave the #1 slot blank—possibly to be filled at a later date, or perhaps to remain as a reminder of how lackluster of a year 2014 was for film. I'll be posting a couple runners-up and a music list at a later date. So, at last for 2014, here are my 9 favorite films, an honorable mention, 9 runners-up, and the 2 films I truly hated. Click here to read the posts in descending order. NOTE: The "Runners-Up" section is for the best of the year, not the worst. Just to clarify.

2. Force majeure (Turist). Ruben Östlund. Sweden/France/Norway.
3. Ida. Paweł Pawlikowski. Poland/Denmark/France/UK.
4. Xenia. Panos H. Koutras. Greece/France/Belgium.
5. Misunderstood (Incompresa). Asia Argento. Italy/France.
6. Abuse of Weakness (Abus de faiblesse). Catherine Breillat. France/Germany/Belgium.
7. Maps to the Stars. David Cronenberg. Canada/Germany/USA/France.
8. Child's Pose (Poziția copilului). Călin Peter Netzer. Romania.
9. Obvious Child. Gillian Robespierre. USA.
10. Only Lovers Left Alive. Jim Jarmusch. UK/Germany/France/Greece/Cyprus.

Honorable Mention:

  • Nymphomaniac. Lars von Trier. Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium.

The Worst of 2014:


  • Young & Beautiful (Jeune et jolie). François Ozon. France.
  • Something Must Break (Nånting måste gå sönder). Ester Martin Bergsmark. Sweden.
  • Under the Skin. Jonathan Glazer. UK.
  • Gerontophilia. Bruce LaBruce. Canada.
  • You and the Night (Les rencontres d'après minuit). Yann Gonzalez. France.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past. Bryan Singer. USA/UK.
  • Boyhood. Richard Linklater. USA.
  • Gloria. Sebastián Lelio. Chile/Spain.
  • Little Gay Boy. Antony Hickling. France.

Best of 2014: Honorable Mention, Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier)

Nymphomaniac. Lars von Trier. Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium.

I don't even know what to really say about Lars von Trier's films any more. With each new one, they tend to feel less and less like films and more like events. Hyped to death around the world and across the Internet, the sensations I get leading up to seeing these films feel more like those that I get before long-planned trips or eagerly awaited parties. My subsequent reactions don't feel like responses to the films themselves but to the particular experiences. Those reactions also never feel weighted by my own criticism or opinion. If you asked me whether I liked Nymphomaniac or not, I don't really have an answer.

I find my own experience with Nymphomaniac to be hindered by a number of factors: I watched both volumes alone On Demand from start-to-finish after the theatrical screening was pushed back two weeks; I settled on watching the "theatrical cuts" (which von Trier had nothing to do with) since I couldn't find any information regarding the releases of his versions (which clock in around an hour-and-a-half longer than the studio edits); I eventually watched the director's cuts, at home, both volumes back-to-back and simply found myself comparing the strengths and weaknesses of both versions. I still cannot even say that I like or dislike Nymphomaniac. What I will say critically, however, is that Nymphomaniac (Vol. I, to be specific) contains both the single greatest performance and the single greatest scene in any film this past year.

As Mrs. H, a mother of three whose husband has left her to be with our protagonist Joe (here played by Stacy Martin, whose lack of presence runs the risk of fading her into the wallpaper of every scene; later played by a much more captivating Charlotte Gainsbourg), Uma Thurman enters Joe's apartment (and the film itself) like a hurricane, clutching her three mute boys as she shuffles through Joe's apartment. She refers to her sons always as a collective entity ("the children") and even refuses to use her husband's name ("the children's father" suffices) and asks Joe, "would it be alright if we showed the children the whoring bed?" She escorts the sad angel-faced children into the bedroom as if they were walking into a museum exhibit, showing the children "the whoring bed," or their Daddy's new favorite place. My descriptions of the scene and Uma's performance can't do either the justice they deserve, but "shattering" is a word that comes to mind. Nothing that follows comes anywhere near the fever pitch of this chapter. Neither Thurman nor von Trier have ever shined brighter than they did in those 10-to-15 minutes, and even if I can't really tell you that I liked (or even disliked) Nymphomaniac, I can assure you that Uma made the experience totally worthwhile.

With: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBoeuf, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe, Uma Thurman, Mia Goth, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Michael Pas, Jamie Bell, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, Jens Albinus, Jesper Christensen, Nicolas Bro, Hugo Speer, Christian Gade Bjerrum, Jonas Baeck, Christoph Schechinger, Jesse Inman, David Halina, Anders Hove, Simon Boer, Cyron Melville, Saskia Reeves

Best of 2014: #10. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)

#10. Only Lovers Left Alive. Jim Jarmusch. UK/Germany/France/Greece/Cyprus.

Director Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise, Mystery Train, Dead Man) is no stranger to a certain kind of "cool," and it's probably no surprise that he managed to transport his signature love of dark music and deadpan delivery into a vampire tale. "Tale" might be misleading, as it's far more of "a brief episode in the eternal lives of two vampires in love," played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton (who also stole every scene in this year's Snowpiercer). Once you accept that Jarmusch is more concerned with the mood of his world (which bounces between Tangiers and Detroit) and the tools that his vampires use to occupy themselves in their eternity than he is with narrative conflict, Only Lovers Left Alive becomes a sumptuous little film with plenty of delights. Hiding behind sunglasses, Swinton with her long windswept white hair and Hiddleston with his rock star saunter are about as alluring a vampire couple as Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie were in The Hunger some thirty years earlier.

With: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright, Slimane Dazi

Best of 2014: #9. Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre)

#9. Obvious Child. Gillian Robespierre. USA.

It's not everyday that I walk away from a film with as many scatological jokes as Obvious Child with such a beaming smile on my face. In what could have been another irritating "modern" rom-com for socially awkward girls, Obvious Child manages to be both hysterically funny and genuinely touching. Less of a girl-meets-boy comedy of errors and more of a girl-tries-to-find-date-for-her-Valentine's-Day-abortion romp, Obvious Child provides the perfect vehicle for star Jenny Slate to elevate from being a bit-part scene-stealer to a gifted leading actor. Along with Lisa Kudrow in The Comeback this year, Slate—with her hilarious stand-up bits and hopelessly uncomfortable run-ins with the father of her fetus (Jake Lacy)—proves the old theory that comedians make excellent transitions into drama (and usually not the other way around).

With: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, Polly Draper, Richard Kind, David Cross, Paul Briganti

Best of 2014: #8. Child's Pose (Călin Peter Netzer)

#8. Child's Pose (Poziția copilului). Călin Peter Netzer. Romania.

Winner of the Golden Bear at last year's Berlinale and starring the grand dame of Romanian cinema Luminița Gheorghiu who has appeared in some of the greatest hits of the country's "new wave" of the past decade (Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Aurora, Beyond the Hills), Child's Pose might be the most unusual comedy I've seen in a long time. On its surface, it's a family melodrama about a mother named Cornelia (Gheorghiu) going to all length's to protect her adult son (Bogdan Dumitrache) after he gets into legal trouble after fatally hitting a teenage boy with his car. And on this level, it works beautifully.

Culminating in a moving and upsetting climax, Child's Pose is brilliantly acted throughout and has enough familial drama and tension to fill a standard Lars Von Trier film. But that's the director's clever deception. More than a family drama, Child's Pose is a scathing satire of wealth and privilege. It wasn't until I went back and rewatched the film that I truly noticed the Buñuel-esque touches that reveal Child's Pose's true nature. Is Cornelia a mother who will stop at nothing to keep her son safe, or is she just a woman of power and means trying to subvert justice for her own gain? In fact, she's both of those things, and that's what makes Child's Pose so richly compelling.

With: Luminița Gheorghiu, Bogdan Dumitrache, Vlad Ivanov, Florin Zamfirescu, Ilinca Goia, Nataşa Raab, Adrian Titieni, Mimi Branescu

Best of 2014: #7. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)

#7. Maps to the Stars. David Cronenberg. Canada/Germany/USA/France.

It only takes a few minutes into David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars to realize why John Waters named this his favorite film of 2014. The entire cast of characters—a collection of psychologically-ravaged, misanthropic misfits in Hollywood—speak like they're in a John Waters film, shouting ludicrous and offensive things at one another while discussing topics like rape and incest. Everyone, particularly Julianne Moore as washed up actress Havana Segrand who's hoping to land the role that made her mother famous in an upcoming remake, is about one wrong glance from a stranger away from a complete meltdown. Searing indictments of Hollywood and fame come around rather often, but there's something special about this one.

 I can't call it a "return to form" for Cronenberg, whose last two films were pretty big disappointments, as Maps to the Stars looks and feels a lot different than any of his other films. With Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner taking us on a funhouse ride of depravity, jealousy, addiction, hallucination, misopedia, incest, greed, sex, and manipulation across Tinsel Town, I have to admit that I probably had more fun watching this movie than anything else this year. I'm sure that says a lot about my character. The four lead actors—Moore, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes; Mia Wiasakowska, in easily my favorite of all her performances I've seen prior as a burn victim fresh out of the psych ward who's made friends with Carrie Fisher on Twitter; John Cusack, also the best I've seen him as a creepy therapy guru; and Evan Bird, as the troubled thirteen-year-old movie star just out of rehab—deliver stellar performances in rather demanding roles. Maps to the Stars goes a bit astray in its final act, but it sustains its weirdness for a helluva lot longer than most can hope to.

With: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Carrie Fisher, Kiara Glasco, Sarah Gadon, Dawn Greenhalgh, Jonathan Watton, Jennifer Gibson, Gord Rand

Best of 2014: #6. Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat)

#6. Abuse of Weakness (Abus de faiblesse). Catherine Breillat. France/Germany/Belgium.

Perhaps still best known for their brilliant, unsettling portrayals of dark sexuality, writer/director Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl) and actress Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher) teamed up after all these years for a semi-autobiographical film that Breillat adapted from her novel of the same name. Despite their association to a certain trend of extremism in French cinema during the early '00s, neither of these women could be dismissed mere provocatrices. In the past ten years or so, Breillat has made a pair of deconstructed fairy tales into films and Huppert has continued to act steadily in projects as diverse as Michael Haneke's Amour, Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country, and even a special episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But it still felt like destiny when it was announced that Huppert would play a filmmaker named Maud Shainberg, a thinly-veiled version of Catherine Breillat (not unlike Anne Parillaud in Sex Is Comedy from 2002), in the director's latest film.

Titled after a French legal term, Abuse of Weakness recounts two traumatic events in Breillat's life: suffering a stroke that left half of her body paralyzed and falling victim to notorious conman Christophe Rocancourt, who swindled over €500,000 from her after she cast him opposite Naomi Campbell in what would have been her first English-language film. Appropriately, Abuse of Weakness is not a reactionary tale, nor is it an angry one. Breillat takes these events to explore the unexpected emotions that Vilko, the Rocancourt character played by rapper Kool Shen, stirs in Maud. Inexplicably, Huppert continues to outdo herself here, not simply due to her uncanny ability to convincingly play a character who has suffered a stroke. Maud's personality is like a bouquet of strong and unusual characteristics. Driven and meticulous, while also girlish and flirty, it never quite matters what it is about Vilko that charms Maud into writing him all those checks. It's Huppert's giddiness, determination, and her faith in Vilko's ability to play the male lead in her next film that shows us all we need to know about the "why." But again, Abuse of Weakness isn't a defense piece. Instead, it's a quietly devastating film that is as haunting as any of Breillat's finest work.

With: Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Laurence Ursino, Christophe Sermet, Ronald Leclercq

Best of 2014: #5. Misunderstood (Asia Argento)

#5. Misunderstood (Incompresa). Asia Argento. Italy/France.

In her third outing as director, Asia Argento physically takes herself out of frame (after assuming the lead roles in both Scarlet Diva and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things) for her most personal film to date. In many ways beyond the fact that Argento starred in Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress, Misunderstood pairs rather well with Abuse of Weakness, as both films turn the directors' own lives into fiction to explore some rather profound and complex emotions (though Argento said if she really wanted to make a film about her parents, it'd be more along the lines of Capturing the Friedmans than this). In Misunderstood, Argento paints a candy-colored diorama of Rome in the early 1980s where nine-year-old Aria, brilliantly played by Giulia Salerno, lives with her occasionally volatile, often neurotic, and consistently self-centered parents and her two sisters. Aria's father (Gabriel Garko) is a handsome, vain, superstitious actor who is a bit of a celebrity in Italy. Her mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a beautiful musician who changes her style with every successive lover who enters (and inevitably leaves) their lives.

What follows is a series of blow-ups that send Aria back and forth between her parents' respective homes, with her two sisters—one the older half sister who has the makings of a young Anna Nicole Smith, the other a pretty brunette who looks just like her mother—taking permanent stay with their respective parent. What's most impressive about Misunderstood is Argento's ability to capture the spirit of youth, in all its folly, heartache, and confusion. She pulls a truly remarkable performance out of her young lead actress, who is so perfectly wide-eyed and with a face that expresses the competing sensations of excitement and disappointment. Again like another Breillat film, Fat Girl, Argento understands the difficult forces that run through family—emotions and actions that occur between siblings and parents, many of which directly conflict the emotions and actions they had previously displayed, on an unpredictable cycle. Tenderness and spite come in equal measures. Equally entrancing and heartbreaking, Misunderstood showcases Argento's ever-increasing strength as a filmmaker with an impressive vision. Let's just hope it doesn't take her another ten years to direct her next film.

With: Giulia Salerno, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gabriel Garko, Carolina Poccioni, Anna Lou Castoldi, Alice Pea, Andrea Pittorino, Riccardo Russo, Sofia Patron, Gianmarco Tognazzi, Max Gazzè, Justin Pearson

Best of 2014: #4. Xenia (Panos H. Koutras)

#4. Xenia. Panos H. Koutras. Greece/France/Belgium.

There are a lot of films out there that are hard to sell others on. The most common type of film that I have difficulty conveying my enthusiasm for is the kind that sounds terrible on paper despite the fact that it flourishes on the vision and/or skill of its director. Andrea Arnold's brilliant Fish Tank is a great example of this, as the story of a teenage girl wanting to escape the hardships of her life by winning a dance competition doesn't usually stir up a lot of interest from the friends I have. Xenia falls into the same category, but if Fish Tank sounds like a clichéd underdog tale, Xenia sounds like a film school catastrophe from a gay student who watched a whole lot of David Lynch.

Ostensibly a road flick about two estranged teenage brothers (Kostas Nikouli, Nikos Gelia) trying to find their long-absent father after their mother dies, Xenia is fully stacked with musical numbers, gang run-ins, choreographed dances, mystical cruise ships, a Greek American Idol singing competition, and life-size talking rabbits. In the wrong hands, Xenia would have crashed and burned. Somehow though, director Panos H. Koutas (Strella) manages to make it all work beautifully, and that's no small feat. By throwing together several different recognizable story devices, Xenia transforms into something altogether unique and exciting. After premiering in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year, I was lucky to catch an encore screening of Xenia at the Chicago International Film Festival where it won the Q Hugo Award (for best LGBT film at the fest). As it stands now at #4, Xenia holds the title of being the best queer film I saw all year. Honorable mention in that category to Ester Martin Bergsmark's Something Must Break, Bruce LaBruce's Gerontophilia and Yann Gonzalez's You and the Night.

With: Kostas Nikouli, Nikos Gelia, Yannis Stankoglou, Marissa Triandafyllidou, Aggelos Papadimitriou, Romanna Lobats, Patty Pravo

Best of 2014: #3. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski)

#3. Ida. Paweł Pawlikowski. Poland/Denmark/France/UK.

As many of you know, I have a Tumblr extension of this blog which features hundreds of movie screencaps I've made over the years. Not to go too deep into the rationale, I find that I discover so much more about a film by going back and capping memorable scenes, beautiful shots, and visual curiosities that lingered in my mind. For the countless films I've gone back to create caps for, no film has made me as trigger happy and overzealous with choosing shots as Ida has. Shot after shot in crisp blacks and whites with meticulous composition, Ida has to be one of the most exquisitely shot films I've ever seen. If you've seen Paweł Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love (which Ida's co-cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski also lensed), this probably won't come as a surprise. Replacing My Summer of Love's sunkissed rural England with Ida's ornate interiors and the stark Polish countryside, Ida is Pawlikowski's first feature in his native Poland after years of studying and working in the U.K.

Set in the 1960s, the film approaches the subject of the Holocaust from an intriguing perspective. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young woman who grew up in the convent, is sent by the Mother Superior to meet her only surviving relative before she can take the vows to become a Catholic nun. Anna leaves the convent to visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who tells her she was born a Jew. Making an amusing odd couple of boozy, cynical judge and quiet, pious nun, the two women embark on a journey to find the remains of Anna's parents who were believed to have been slaughtered while in hiding from the Nazis. You're not likely to find a better-looking film from 2014. I just wish I had caught it on the big screen instead of settling for watching it at home.

With: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski, Halina Skoczynska, Joanna Kulig

Best of 2014: #2. Force majeure (Ruben Östlund)

 #2. Force majeure (Turist). Ruben Östlund. Sweden/France/Norway.

Set entirely on an isolated tourist ski resort somewhere in the French Alps, Force majeure examines the psychological ramifications that a Swedish family of four endure after surviving an avalanche. Winner of the Jury Prize for the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year, Force majeure is in a way the Spring Breakers of 2014… if only for the fact that at no point during the film did I ever have an idea where the film was headed. Writer/director Ruben Östlund takes a page from fellow countryman Ingmar Bergman as he explores the existential crises that the once-seemingly happy married couple Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) experience once the shock of the avalanche starts to wear off.

Does a person's true nature instinctually reveal itself in a moment of crisis? Can a single incident permanently alter your perception of the world? While these are just a few of the questions posed in the film, Force majeure isn't as cerebral as I'm making it sound. The film is comprised of unusual sequences that trigger the spectrum of emotions. It's at times darkly humorous, while at others nail-bitingly tense. These sequences and the film as a whole mirror their unusual setting: a hotel that's absent of privacy, a resort where the sounds of loud explosions echo in the night, mountains with treacherous paths, drones hovering outside the hotel windows, and an ominous, creaking ski lift. As a whole, Force majeure doesn't entirely succeed. Some scenes don't work as well as others, but in a year as disappointing as this one, that's just me being nitpicky. Force majeure is really everything I want in a film: bold, surprising, weird, unique, and riveting. So, really, who am I to complain?

With: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Karin Myrenberg, Brady Corbet, Johannes Moustos

The Two Worst Films of 2014

My therapist and I agreed that not dwelling on the negative (as I have been known to do) might be a fun new thing for me to try, so I'm not going to bother making a list of every crappy movie I sat through in 2014. I used to find that sort of thing fun, but I'd rather highlight the finer things in life instead. With that said, there were two films that lit the fires of hell deep in my soul, and I had to single them out here. Like every year, the film or films that I hate are almost always inexplicably liked by the general public, and in the case of these two dubious flicks, both have already won notable awards, which would stupefy me if I didn't realize how ridiculous and meaningless almost every sort of movie award actually is. I'll keep this brief (in no particular order).

The Normal Heart. Ryan Murphy. USA.

Ending HBO's unofficial AIDS trilogy that began with And the Band Played On and Angels in America with a thud, Ryan Murphy's adaptation of Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart is the most unnecessary film of 2014. Its rehashing of the early days of AIDS feels less like a timely memorial than a roundabout act of slut-shaming and PReP-bashing. I could dwell on Murphy's signature tastelessness or even the poor casting of Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, but the truly contemptible aspect of The Normal Heart is its existence and placement in time. This isn't the story or the conversation that people should be having about AIDS. We've heard this story before, and we've heard it from better sources. So as it stands in 2014, The Normal Heart is nothing but a shining example of the continued existence of gay self-loathing, shame, and… well… bad taste.

Whiplash. Damien Chazelle. USA.

Winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Whiplash is an appropriately bloated love letter to being a horrible heterosexual white man in America. It clumsily questions some of the shitty privileged, white, heterosexual mythology, only to perform an irritating bit of auto-fellatio in a laughable final scene that proves its moments of reflection were only to amplify its rousing support of those myths of greatness and the American dream. Its misogyny and homophobia are actually rather unsettling, perhaps because they aren't coded or hidden in the subtext. Instead, they're laid bare directly on the screen for the audiences who've applauded it to laugh at or blatantly ignore.