Scott’s Top Ten of 2014
I feel quite fortunate in looking over the many very fine films I saw this past year, regretting very little of the time I spent at the movies; the most egregious offenses (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Wish I Was Here, Bad Words, Into the Woods, The Imitation Game, among others) seem so small in the rear-view mirror. As I limited myself, for the first time, only to films that played in the United States for at least one week in the past year, I would like to call out a few inspired films that are currently without U.S. theatrical distribution – Melanie Laurent’s Breathe, Eskil Vogt’s Blind, Maya Vitkova’s Viktoria, Hoang Diep Nguyen’s Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, Lav Diaz’s From What is Before, Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini, and Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom.
Furthermore, aside from what I listed below, I would be remiss to not give some form of recognition to such varied and startling works (all of which could easily make up their own distinct and highly-respectable list) as We Are the Best!, Ida, Love is Strange, Gone Girl, A Most Violent Year, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Joe, Young & Beautiful, The Immigrant, Palo Alto, The Rover, Jersey Boys, Under the Skin, The Drop, Force Majeure, Night Moves, The Judge, American Sniper, Selma, Actress, The Babadook, and especially Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which float within and throughout this final top ten list as spiritual siblings, neither rising above nor falling below any entry in anything as base as a quantitative analysis.
Without further ado, let the countdown begin.
Eleven shots, each lasting a little over ten minutes apiece, follow small groups of people (and, once, animals) as they ride a cable car to the Manakamana temple in Nepal. Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez never show us the temple; we never learn the background of the riders aside from whatever they happen to discuss on their journey (the films is a sort of affected documentary). Each shot is separated by the darkness we plunge out of and into at the start and end points, the grinding gears in the background giving the sensation that the whole film is one continuous shot. Perhaps because of the destination itself, there is something spiritual at work in the film. Are the riders meant to be the same souls, traveling back and forth in purgatory? Its pleasures are far less esoteric, ranging from simply observing people at rest against a breathtaking backdrop to an outrageously funny sequence in which a middle-aged woman and her mother desperately try to finish melting ice cream bars before the ride is over. And perhaps that’s spiritual enough all its own.
9. Bird People
Pascale Ferran’s Bird People, a small-scale meditation on the fantasy of escape, may not have as big a marketing push as this year’s other avian-titled film, but is just as essential, adventurous, and exhilarating an experience. Unlike most Parisian-set films, Ferran takes the least romantic view of the city possible, placing most of the film’s action within an airport-adjacent Hilton. But that doesn’t mean she’s without a sense of the romantic. The film tells two successive stories, which, at the halfway point in each, give her protagonists a brief moment of revelation, a chance to live out their desires to run away from it all, as birds do at the change of the seasons. The method each takes reflect their nature. Gary (Josh Charles) is pragmatic, organized, while perhaps lacking in compassion; Audrey (Anaïs Demoustier) is empathetic, given to daydreaming, while sorely lacking in self-sufficiency. Both take routes that may depart from reality, Ferran’s roaming camera seemingly unbound by the constraints of human operators. The true escape may yet be of the mind. Ferran peppers her world with other prisoners of modernity – a hotel clerk who sleeps in his car while he’s between apartments, as he’s not yet close enough with his girlfriend to stay with her; Gary’s wife, trapped in a Skype screen; even the people Audrey observes, tucked away in their own private rooms in the dollhouse she perceives. Everyone in their own story, their ornately-imagined image of their life.
8. Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian
Arnaud Desplechin’s psychiatry drama resists the trappings of the genre so fiercely that the extent to which the proceedings even count as “drama” has been passively debated since the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2013. His adaptation of ethnologist and psychoanalyst Georges Devereux’s book Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian is closer itself to a therapy session, gently coaxing psychic trauma out of its subjects – centrally, Jimmy Picard (Benicio Del Toro), a Native American war veteran suffering mental shocks; but also Devereux (Mathieu Amalric) himself, an eccentric whose personal shortcomings are many and varied, but which refreshingly rarely intrude on his professional capacity. Del Toro and Amalric play free from vanity, focusing on how their characters’ limitations – Jimmy can’t express himself, Georges can only perceive another culture so much – both impede and inform what becomes a collaboration towards an impossible solution. Therapy is an process, each moment a step, and it doesn’t end once the film does.
7. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her
There’s a whole world in here. Technically half of Ned Benson’s two-part, intersecting The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her/Him, the section dedicated more to Jessica Chastain’s title character is far and away the more accomplished, the more emotionally mysterious and resonant. Separated from her husband after a traumatic event, Eleanor moves back in with her parents to pursue a loosely-defined education that her professor (an outstanding Viola Davis) correctly identifies as “taking classes just to take classes.” Chastain – so defiant and vulnerable here – has never been better onscreen, nor blessed with so generous a filmmaker. Eleanor yearns equally for normalcy and solitude, incompatible desires in her present circumstances, and the decisions she makes in alternately seeking each are fascinating, challenging, risible, and beautifully human. Him makes for an interesting B-side, and hints at how rich, complex, and intriguing Benson’s world is.
6. Muppets Most Wanted
Abandoning the labored nostalgia of 2011’s The Muppets, James Bobin’s Muppets Most Wanted goes for full-tilt silliness right from the start and never lets up. Admittedly, any film that directly pays homage to Ingmar Bergman and Busby Berkeley within its first five minutes is going to have my attention, but the film’s innumerable references are never the end of its humor. It always manages to twist it, heighten it, accentuate it, and make an actual joke out of its (and our) cultural awareness. Moreover, its humor is built into its aesthetic, using the camera to contrast point of view (as in the still above) and constructing whole sets to tell jokes on their own (the interrogation musical number is a marvel). The spirit of guys like Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis truly lives on.
My introduction to director Denis Villeneuve came, like many others, from his 2013 thriller Prisoners, an attractively compelling, if ultimately rather rote, mystery yarn. Nothing in it suggested he had anything like Enemy in him. Adapted by Javier Gullón from José Saramago’s novel The Double (no relation to the thoroughly mundane Richard Ayoade/Jesse Eisenberg film, also this year), Enemy so forcefully resists easy interpretation that I’ve read pieces that claim the entire film is about spiders taking over the world…and they kind of have a point! Even before we get to its totally insane penultimate shot, Enemy rests more in a feeling than a narrative, using the story of a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who finds another who looks exactly like him (Gyllenhaal again – movie magic!) to explore unspoken, unidentifiable dread, the distance you sometimes feel in sensing your life is not your own. Exploiting Toronto’s skyline as the ultimate concrete prison, this is a sort of No Exit for the 21st century, in which the comforts of even lower-middle-class living make it easy to ignore the careful designs that seek to trap us.
4. Inherent Vice
It’s about loss. I think. Personal loss, in Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) yearning for the girl who left him (Katherine Waterston), certainly. But also cultural and spiritual loss, in the way that, in the early 1970s, when this film takes place, certain freedoms would gradually become curtailed by economic, political, and social interests. That this is explored by so insane a plot that you’d need a surface considerably more elaborate than the half-wall Doc scrawls on in trying to make sense of it himself is at once besides the point and the ENTIRE point, man. These cultural movements intersect, sometimes, but more often they’re happening concurrently, unaware of even one another, let alone able to be perceived by those they were destroying. Oh, and the movie’s also really, really funny, completely bonkers, with a joke in every scene, as far as I recall. Paul Thomas Anderson keeps pushing himself further and further out on a limb with each film he makes to the point that he’s basically building his own tree.
3. Goodbye to Language 3D
I’d hoped to see this again before writing up this list, as a means of making more sense of the damn thing, but the exhilarating aesthetic experience that is Jean-Luc Godard’s 39th feature is, to my mind, beyond reproach, so (expertly) reckless that any question of coherence just seems silly at this point. When it does bother with a character of thematic beat, it lands it, and Héloise Godet gives one of the year’s best performances out of a sketch of an idea. My interest in an actor “fully forming” or “inhabiting” a character somehow apart from him or herself is nearing an all-time low, as watching people find ways to exist and express themselves onscreen is exponentially more compelling. Godet is given such an outlet here (just as Phoenix, Gyllenhaal, Chastain, and Demoustier were in the above-mentioned films). Wryly funny and boorishly honest, it’s the most audacious, exciting, and essential cinematic experience of the year.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Like Inherent Vice, Wes Anderson’s eighth film is about a historical social loss told through a manic plot in a fictional place. In this Anderson’s case, it’s the decline of a certain type of European society in the lead-up to and aftermath of World War II. Perhaps even more than his previous films, Anderson’s talent for carefully-arranged frames is Grand Budapest Hotel’s most immediate source of satisfaction, but it remains his ability to let great tragedies happen offscreen, barely mentioned by the characters for fear of the emotion they’ll elicit, that makes his films resonate long after his majestic patterns have ceased to dance onscreen. And what patterns – Anderson has become more tonally daring, dipping into everything from screwball comedy to romance to adventure to suspense horror to cartoon in the span of a few minutes (the film runs a mere 99) without ever losing his vise grip on the proceedings. Ralph Fiennes gives the year’s best male performance as Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge of the titular lodge whose talent for hospitality seems born of a life spent largely without. As with Anderson’s diorama, the central pleasure is simply in hearing him speak, but it’s the slight hints to all that goes unheard and unseen that makes it so thoroughly embodied.
1. Two Days, One Night
Like the Catholic faith it evokes, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest fable is rigidly-structured in a way that doesn’t diminish individual struggle, but rather draws us together around it, making us all complicit; responsible for and indebted to one another. Marion Cotillard plays a factory worker who, while struggling with debilitating depression, has one weekend to convince her sixteen coworkers, one by one, to vote for her to keep her job instead of taking their sizable bonus. In the best film I’ve seen all year, Cotillard gives the best performance, at every moment looking like she may collapse from emotional exhaustion. Every time we hear her “pitch,” we’re afraid it will be the last time, yet she puts forth the bravery to get through it at least once more, hoping their empathy in simply seeing her will be enough. But empathy is a two-way street, and the Dardennes ensure ours extends well past her and towards those who oppose her. Everyone is stuck in this horrid system, after all. No decision is easy in poverty. Its damnation of capitalism is ground-level, exploring the way we’re all ultimately forced to compete against and best our fellow man, but suggests the way out may be similarly close at hand. What hope can we have for the system to save us if we don’t help save one another? Uncomplicated and beautifully wrought, Two Days, One Night is a spectacular example of drama as spiritual reflection.