2014 is all but over. From the January doldrums to the prestige pictures of November and December, 2014 has come and gone with all the bombastic blockbusters, undervalued indie pictures and thought provoking documentaries that one could ever dream of. While it’s tough to say, at least from where we stand right now, how this year itself stacks up to years past, one thing is easy to discuss, that being the best films of this year.
Be it a movie you forgot you saw all the way back at the beginning of the year, or the recent awards darling that you just had the chance to enjoy, digging through a given year in cinema is always an engaging and insightful exercise. And that’s exactly what I’ve done here. Here are the ten best films of 2014, as decided by yours truly.
10. It Felt Like Love
From director Eliza Hittman comes one of the year’s great cinematic debuts. Telling the story of 14 year old Lila, this feature debut from Hittman is a haunting and unforgettable look at the youthful exploration of one’s sexuality, through a naturalistic lens so raw and humane that it feels entirely its own. As the attraction felt by Lila towards an older man grows into something closer resembling obsession, the film becomes a brooding piece of youthful experimentation growing ever more unsettling and ever more raw.
A beautiful film driven by a stark sense of realism and naturalism, the dialogue here feels true and the direction is intimate and grows to be almost claustrophobic. A heart wrenching piece of work, Hittman’s film feels autobiographical in a way very few films do. Without any sort of pretense or real ideology, this film leaves the story laying on the screen, bare and naked, for us to take in and allow to wash over us. Powerful and unflinching, this is one of the year’s great indie releases, and one that too many people overlooked.
9. Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors (REVIEW)
The second film from director Sam Fleischner, Stand Clear is a film of many stripes. At times devastating familial drama, at others a haunting look at isolation within the urban machine, this utterly breathless love letter to the forgotten parts of New York is an ever involving drama of the highest regard. A dream-like look into the hidden parts of the inner city, Fleischner’s film tells the story of Ricky, a young boy living with autism who, after being left by his mother to walk home alone from school, gets lost in the city right on the brink of an impending hurricane, Hurricane Katrina.
Both a powerful and unforgettable familial drama and also one of the truly great “New York” movies, this is a film many people overlooked at the start of the year, but it is without a doubt one of the most unforgettable pieces of work from 2014. Naturalistic and yet decidedly surreal, Fleischner proves to be one of the indie world’s most interesting filmmakers, and this is a melancholic masterpiece that will hopefully force people to keep a keen eye on this up and coming filmmaker.
8. We Are The Best! (REVIEW)
The name Lukas Moodyson may not spark a great deal of intrigue from the everyday moviegoer, but cinephiles will, especially following his latest film, this 2014 gem, understand that he’s truly one of today’s great world filmmakers. Inspired by his wife’s graphic novel of the same name, the film follows three young punks growing up in 1980s Stockholm, and this moving tale of friendship and the vitality of youth is as kinetic and energetic as it is thought provoking. Also the writer on the film, Moodyson has an impossibly assured hand mixing tones both dramatic and comedic, be it the film’s touching finale or possibly the year’s best sequence, a lovely dance number between the film’s three stars.
Speaking of the three young ladies who lead the picture, they are three of the year’s best on screen performances, and are performances so far beyond the years of the actors that they feel blazenly real and tactile. Moodyson and his camera are themselves enchanting, and seem to be entirely enchanted by this land of snow, youthful ambition and punk rock music, and that enthusiasm and, in many ways, glee is hard to turn away from.
7. Force Majeure (REVIEW)
Very much rooted in the same ground as its fellow skewering of masculinity, the David Fincher joint Gone Girl, Ruben Ostlund’s latest film is arguably a more naturalistic and troubling look at one man’s journey to regain his masculinity as a family’s patriarch. With breathtaking performances from leads Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli, the film introduces us to a bourgeois Swedish family on vacation in the French Alps, only to be caught in an avalanche while having lunch at a mountainside cafe. When the husband is sent running only to discover his wife and children standing firm, this moment forever changes the relationship between the husband and wife, culminating in a story that is as haunting as it is magnetic.
Sweden’s official Oscar submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year, Ostlund’s film is a naturalistic masterwork that finds the director at his most stayed, never opting for any real directorial flourishes, instead using a relatively static camera to linger on the central performances, and this tale of one man’s fight to regain his manhood. Digging directly to the very core of masculinity in a way that feels more real and less pulpy than its big budget brethren (which we will talk about rather soon), Force is a human-level tale that gets fantastic performances out of its entire cast, and is rooted aesthetically deep within the DNA of Swedish cinema. Brisk and quietly brooding, this is an unforgettable piece of work.
6. Gone Girl
The most widely seen film on this list, it’s also one of the most talked about and polarizing films of the year. From the beloved auteur David Fincher comes this look at masculinity in today’s 24/7 news cycle, social media drenched world. With Fincher at the height of his aesthetic powers here, giving this seedy, pulpy narrative a sheen and gloss that only adds to the central themes, this adaptation of the beloved novel of the same name is one of the year’s best thrillers, and also one of Fincher’s most rewarding pieces thematically.
Where most of his work can come off as decidedly shallow, this film (along with a previous film like The Social Network) looks directly at the modern man with such a potent lens that one can’t help but think he was the director born to create these types of pictures. Beautifully paced and deceptively dense thematically, this is one of the year’s most beautifully made, and well acted (Affleck, for example, gives the performance of his career) motion pictures, and easily the best mainstream release of 2014.
5. Why Don’t You Play In Hell? (REVIEW)
It’s rare that action cinema gets the love that it truly deserves. However, when you’re dealing with cinema’s great punk rock auteur, it’s hard to argue with what may be this decade’s greatest action film. Telling the story of a group of filmmakers who team with local yakuza to create the great Japanese action film, Sion Sono brings us one of this year’s greatest films, a powerful look at filmmaking and a love letter more so to the dying world of 35mm filmmaking.
Chock full of great performances and even more cinema references, Sono’s film is a manic and aggressively in your face piece of work that is both enjoyable and bewilderingly thought provoking. Why Don’t You Play In Hell is about as great as cinema can get. Funny, energetic, action packed, jaw dropping, thematically rich and even emotionally dense, Sono’s film is just the bee’s knees. I’ve seen the top of the mountain. And it’s deliciously bloody.
Documentary cinema is at its very apex, and this is one of the year’s very best non-fiction features. Set solely inside a cable car high above a jungle in Nepal, the film is a collection of single takes (all running roughly the exact length of time one can shoot on a single reel of film) set inside the car, focusing on the men, women, children and even animals that enter, on their way to and from worshiping the goddess Manakamana.
A film where its theme is almost explicitly in its premise and aesthetic, this unforgettable meditation on the battle between modernity and deeply rooted tradition is arguably the very best non-fiction film of this year, and is one of the most exciting and awe-inspiring bits of documentary filmmaking I’ve ever seen. A difficult watch for some, due to the single takes and slow pace, but for those that take this journey they will never forget it. A thrilling look at a world on the brink of complete cultural change, this is a film that is not to be missed.
3. Manuscripts Don’t Burn (REVIEW)
Rounding out this year’s list are three of the most important films of this still very young decade. From director Mohammad Rasoulof, himself currently on bail in anticipation of a year long prison sentence and a 20 year ban from filmmaking due to illegal filming, comes this harrowing masterpiece and brazenly antagonistic piece of political upheaval.
Based, at least conceptually, around a decade long series of murders and disappearances that involved roughly 80 dissident artists, the film follows the story of a writer named Kasra who is working on a memoir that includes a story about him witnessing the attempted murder of 20 artists and intellectuals by a staged bus crash. Trying to see his daughter one last time, he cuts a deal with an official where he will give him a copy of the manuscript for the ability to leave the country. However, to save himself some wiggle room, he’s sent copies to two fellow artists, in what sounds like a relatively fool-proof plan. But not in Iran. Not with an omnipresent government. Not under oppression.
Rasoulof, a contemporary of iconic Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (who we will discuss next) crafts something greater than a film here. A political statement, Rasoulof’s film is as close to real revolution as cinema can get. An unforgettable look at creativity under oppression, this is, along with the film we will talk about next, proof that there is no more vital a film landscape than that of Iran.
2. Closed Curtain (REVIEW)
From Panahi comes this film, one that is hard to truly define with any plot description. Following a writer who locks himself in his home once it is announced that dogs will be shot and killed on sight, the film is relatively straight forward structurally, that is until Panahi himself comes on screen, subverting everything we thought of as fact previously.
The lead performance here, from co-director Kambozia Partovi, is fine, but it is Panahi’s camera, and his surreal sense of structure and narrative fluidity that really adds vitality to this revolutionary piece of work. And the film truly comes to life when Panahi comes on screen as well, throwing the story out of the window, truly. Or put into a blender, if that analogy fits. The film’s neo-realist aesthetic posits this film as an odd middle point between documentary and stage play, very much like the cinematic version of the stories Panahi stages in his previous work.
Intimate, unflinching and with an omnipresent camera, Panahi may be “banned” from making pictures, but if this gorgeous and intellectually thrilling meditation on artistry under the eye of true dictatorial oppression is an indication, he may very well be the most important cinematic voice the world has seen in ages. It may not be a far cry from his last picture thematically, but Closed Curtain may very well be the director’s best film to date.
1. Concerning Violence (REVIEW)
And yet it is director Goran Hugo Olsson that may have given the world this year’s most important film. Based on philosopher Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched Of The Earth,” this thought-provoking look at both violence and the impact of colonialism on the world is a ground-breaking piece of work that may look and feel like a glorified power point presentation, but has an energy and vitality to it that is decidedly cinematic.
In a world where power is used in vicious, vindictive ways, this film is one of the most culturally significant pieces of art in quite some time.
While this doesn’t make for a perfect comparison to today’s political and sociological landscape, with the events in Ferguson still in the mind of this entire nation, a bit of commentary like the various bits mentioned throughout this work helps make this something more than a film. Something more than a documentary. Something more than art. This isn’t a cinematically important film. It’s culturally important. And is an absolute must see.