What am I, a month late? A thousand pardons, to the few out there who mind, but the mucky business of constructing the annual year end Top Ten list, conjoined with a writer sort of losing his voice due to myriad real life pressures, plus the problem of a Midwest film critic unable to see quite a few qualifying 2014 releases until after the Oscar nominations have been announced, to say nothing of lingering over a little thing you may have heard of and unwisely dismissed called Blackhat, makes one necessarily a little bit, and unfashionably I admit, late. And what you have here remains imperfect! I was tempted to cheat by coupling my selections and linking them with particular themes (as I do for #4 here), but laziness got the better of me and I chose to write about 11 movies instead of 20. (Though I continue with a somewhat overlong introduction, but there you go).
As far as the runners up, I would have loved to include the new heavyweight champion of “It’s 2 a.m. and I’m drunk and want a frozen pizza” flicks, Keanu Reeves’ gung-fu opus John Wick, along with Luc Besson’s deliriously fun and beautiful Lucy (it’s the best thing Besson, whose The Family was probably 2013’s worst film, has ever done). Or Godard’s acclaimed and hypnotic film essay Goodbye to Language, featuring the most ingenious use of 3-D cinematography I’ve ever seen. There’s Ava DuVerney’s Selma, the first major film about Martin Luther King Jr. (an excellent David Oyelowo), which is a masterfully calibrated and surprisingly spiritual consideration of history and a great individual’s intimate doubts (there’s a moment at the bridge when King’s followers wait for him to lead that seems to channel Jesus having second thoughts in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ). The film overleaps hagiographic trappings and accomplishes a sense of King many of us have never considered.
In need of some defense was Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s best film in years, a gorgeous pop fairytale with an over-the-top Rumpelstiltskin (Christoph Waltz) so entrenched in his solipsistic fantasy world that he’s like an abusive and exploitative reconsideration of Burton’s title character from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (I thought it resembled that film more than Burton’s previous collaboration with writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, Ed Wood). I also wanted to cite Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights, maybe the most affecting romance of the year, a pop-star-in-love scenario that could have easily been hackneyed Bodyguard stale bread if not for Prince-Bythewood’s talents as writer/director, the story dreamily floating in tune to Tami Reiker’s photography, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Good-God-Great performance, probably the year’s most overlooked job of acting.
And so it goes with Mommy, Stranger by the Lake, Gone Girl, Calvary, Jealousy, Mr. Turner, Blue Ruin, The Double, The Better Angels, National Gallery, Foxcatcher, Listen Up Philip, Winter Sleep, Whiplash, Wild, A Most Wanted Man, Venus in Fur, American Sniper, Joe, Noah, and The Lego Movie. I was also very close to including one of the year’s most widely celebrated films, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, which I initially disliked but with two subsequent viewings have come to feel was probably a few steps ahead of me, its much-much-too-on-the-nose pitfalls I now feel as being part of the point (and represented by what happens to Michael Keaton’s unfortunate schnozz in the climax). As Borges figures into it (a copy of Labyrinths is read by Edward Norton’s misanthrope actor while in a tanning bed), I’ll say somewhere in the infinite Library of Babel or along an alternative direction in the garden of forking paths, Birdman is on another one of my Top Ten lists.
However much I’m reading into things, maybe erroneously, the recurring theme of last year felt like Life as Literature, the frustrating separation and influence between the real world and textual fantasies or reflections feeding into how we experience our lives. In Birdman, Keaton’s Riggan Thomson (like director Inarritu) has the famed Don Quixote facial hair, and in/around the theater, struggling to reinvent himself, he often ridiculously trudges through a perilous path of real life and the specters of fiction that inspire—or pollute—the wider world. It’s as if Inarritu were mining the gamut of Latin literature’s Magical Realist tradition from Cervantes to Borges to make a significant reflection on “the cultural genocide” (as Inarritu puts it in interviews and Norton’s character says in the film) of today’s superhero franchises alongside the self-serious melancholy of Raymond Carver, expressing the impulse, from the profane to the sacred, to put human experience on paper—or in his film’s case, toilet paper (which Riggan uses to wipe his nose).
That longing to communicate, however futile, is central to the Spielbergian wistfulness in Interstellar, which goes so far as to recreate Borges’ Babel Library in a black hole. On the other side of the cinephiliac aisle, it’s in Godard’s wonderment about how cinema evolves in Goodbye to Language. It’s in the expression covered up by menacing artifice in Beyond the Lights, the overlapping convolutions of Inherent Vice, and in Big Eyes’ domestic abuse and sensationalism. It’s the mystery of “Kezjo” graffiti in Boyhood, the fetishes and fantasies of a director in Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur, and in “Boy With Apple” from The Grand Budapest Hotel, a grand tale steered by another exemplary Quixote, Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H., the whole picture considering history as narratives within narratives, fictions and non-fictions commingling and reflecting off each other toward infinity. I need not even mention Gone Girl, with its entanglements of truth and fiction, sex in libraries and engagement rings delivered through notepads. And the tiresome boloney spewed in smearing “What X Gets Wrong About” pieces dealing with Selma and Clint Eastwood’s flawed but admirable domestic horror story American Sniper (the latter film whose subject may not be about a Quixote so much as he was a Munchausen). In the flurry of constant information, always accelerating, it’s harder to reach something tangible through a panopticon of abstraction (relating to 2015’s first extraordinary film, Blackhat; more on that in coming weeks, I hope).
And so, getting on with the list: where we grieve for what I’ve left off and may legitimately complain about what I left on. “What Niles Gets Wrong About the Best Films of 2014,” and what have you. But then again, as with such think pieces, I can only say, “Let’s not really give that much of a shit and move on, okay?”
1. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Wes Anderson) I’ve always admired Wes Anderson, but this selection isn’t a long-standing, in-the-bag grab win. Starting with Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009, and then with the heart crushing romance of Moonrise Kingdom (for me 2012’s best film), he hit a new stride. You could say that The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t have the quiet emotional punch of Moonrise (there are such complaints), but that should hardly count against what is an uproarious compact adventure, falling through the present to Central Europe’s past regimes with an ever ascending comic momentum, as the art of narrative and poetry is rudely interrupted by history, mostly in the form of 1930s-styled fascists. Some criticized it for an apparent apoliticism, but when a villainous child of privilege with ties to the fascistic Zig Zag Party (Adrien Brody) cries out at an Igon Schiele painting, “What’s the meaning of this shit?!” I was reminded of Hitler’s Degenerate Art exhibitions and the totalitarian drive to stamp out subjective creativity (just like, ergh, people who just want Wes Anderson to stop being so damn…Wes Anderson-y). Stefan Zweig was cited as a literary influence by the filmmaker, but this all-star journey up and around magic mountains also stems from the Thomas Mann tree. We have Anderson’s most exquisite creation, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a courtier worthy of Castiglione and idealist worthy of Cervantes, the embodiment of refined kindness and reflective understanding, his concierge post a dedication to holding high civilization above barbarity. The scene where he sternly scolds his apprentice Zero (Tony Revolori) and then, upon understanding the young man’s circumstances, begs for forgiveness, is sublime poignancy wrapped up in hilarity. Moonrise Kingdom is a masterpiece about love and history that’s difficult for me to watch because of its sad mien with life falling and fading through passing seasons; Grand Budapest meanwhile is an ode to joy to have on repeat, similarly full of death and regret, but with storytelling defiantly usurping our baser qualities.
2. P’TIT QUINQUIN (Bruno Dumont) I loved True Detective, but Cary Fukunaga and Nic Pizzolatto’s internet think-piece factory wasn’t the best blend of murder mystery, history, and the occult in the last year. P’tit Quinquin is possibly the best serial killer thriller since David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007); it’s a bizarre, at times Tati-esque, offbeat riddle, originally released in France as a four episode TV series, its episodic titles making no secret of the dark heart veiled by bouts of grotesque comedy (1. The Human Beast; 2. The Heart of Evil; 3. The Devil Incarnate; 4. Allahu Akbar). There’s even the coincidence of True Detective‘s eternal recurrences, as Bruno Dumont repeatedly brings up historical circularity (“Everything…revolves…”) followed by the dismissal of such hefty matters (“This isn’t the time for philosophy,” remarks the lead investigator). The murders are also atrocity exhibitions, in this case the victims shoved up a cow’s hind quarters–which leads of course to the question, how did they get the people in the creature’s ass? And then…how’d they get the cow (elevated above the northern French village like Christ in La Dolce Vita) into an old WWII bunker? Bernard Pruvost and Phillipe Jore play the bumbling detectives in charge, their physicality out of step with the grim scenes and small town discontent, but beneath the play between multiple generations there’s that haphazard graffiti–“The blood of the wars still flows”–indicating how modernity gives rise to more hatred, more blood revolts, and more nonsensical violence (in a way that’s very disconcerting in light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre). Solving the mystery isn’t the goal here (the perpetrator actually slips right by us very early, wearing his conspicuous balaclava at a victim’s funeral!) Rather, it’s to escape the circle of hell.
3. THE MISSING PICTURE (Rithy Panh) The unfortunate allegations of historical inaccuracy between Selma and American Sniper, or lesser fact-based movies like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, drive home this point of information overload, where we’re so caught in the flux of moving data, deciphering what’s factual or not that, to use the parlance of Blackhat, there’s no time to grieve. The image denotes some kind of evidence for something that happened, one’s reality, one’s suffering, one’s love, a prosthetic memory that should coalesce with our experience and not numb us. The Missing Picture is a tremulously moving documentary about Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh’s attempt to reconcile the oppression suffered under the Khmer Rouge, a regime so careful about its self management that its crimes were almost impossible to capture on a medium other than the memory banks of those who suffered and lost. All Panh can do is recreate his personal experience using clay figures, set pieces that are played against state sanctioned documentary footage. “I seek my childhood like a lost picture,” the narration tells us. The Missing Picture isn’t only a heart wrenching documentary about trauma and grief caused by genocide, but also tells us something about how we respond to the abundance of image tow which we now have access, when the meaning of a “True Image” is so very urgent.
4. INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson) / INTERSTELLAR (Christopher Nolan) My one cheat for this year’s Top Ten, featuring two widely known (like-almost-but-not-quite household names) celluloid-committed filmmakers of the same age who appeal to wildly different cinephile contingents. Their imperfect but hugely rewarding latest films mirror each other: two primal adventures bridging the cosmic to the prosaic. At the heart of both is a yearning to make sense and meaning out of the abundance of narratives given us, which in their chaotic clatter leave the haunt of pitch black loneliness.
Inherent Vice, based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 stoner noir, where the the freewheeling ’60s have given way to post-Charlie Manson paranoia and world’s end eschatology, has Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski in its DNA, sure, but its overlapping plot points, handed to us with the speed and care of a coke-fueled card dealer, struck me like the Monty Python and the Holy Grail soundtrack joke of “The Story of the Film So Far,” where getting lost in the density of the Narrative Factory’s labyrinth (Pynchon’s California story does, after all, include a heckuvalot of pop culture references) is part of the design. Private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquim Phoenix) is yet another Quixote, busy spinning solutions out of political intrigue, struggling to manage the cruel and ceaseless barrage of narratives memory hands down, in this case relating to an old flame. Languid, beautiful (lensed by Anderson’s longtime collaborator Robert Elswit), perfectly acted, and often brutally funny, Inherent Vice, like The Master before it, demands we take time to wade through its wondrous waters, less certain about the painful answers than our commitment to the (even more trying) questions.
Anderson’s film had its detractors, but not so many more relative to Nolan’s Interstellar, where the king of anti-blockbuster blockbusters (it feels like a defiant middle finger to the Marvel mindset) at last broke the camel’s back with expositional dialogue and plot holes, his many critics pointing out how he would have flunked a basic screenwriting course, or something. But since Memento and Insomnia Nolan has studied our need for narratives at their most nonsensical, his formidable abundance of it reversing the Paul Schrader noir formula by making Content part of the Form instead of vice versa (akin to what I felt in Inherent Vice’s density). Interstellar touched a nerve for me unlike any other 2014 film, from its first image of a dusty bookshelf and through Hans Zimmer’s pounding organs to its Empyrean conclusion. The resolution of Interstellar seems atheistic, with its plot holes tied up with fifth dimensional jargon tying up the story’s leaps with shaky cement, but I can’t shake the ache of Matthew McConaughey struggling to reach out through time behind the Babel Library (trying to spell out “S.T.A.Y” next to a copy of James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, of all books–the plea, the prayer, so much like the conclusion of E.T.). The impossible scream, reaching to recover lost time, makes this intergalactic quest a lustrous one of religious sentiment. To survive, to communicate, to love plays out like Hoyte van Hoytema’s beautiful photochemical cinematography searching for orange human flesh in the dark night. It’s also, if I may say so, the first big budget special effects movie in a while where my eyes could be awed because they believed what they were seeing.
5. UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer) Under the Skin is so very difficult to approach because one of its ambitions is to present a perspective alien from a human one. Its cold and mysterious austerity resulted in a lot of comparisons to Stanley Kubrick, which may have only made us realize how we underestimated Kubrick’s humanism. Like with The Babadook, we can try to map out a metaphor to make sense of what’s happening, as we follow some extra terrestrial invader/mole/researcher wearing Scarlett Johansson’s desirous flesh lure Scottish men into its dark den, where they’re somewhat literally deconstructed–but it’s the film’s powerful wrangling of an uncanny nightmare that makes it memorable. It’s not a surrender to abstraction; rather, we’re meant to explore and try to make sense out of what this Alien is doing, why one of the men responds differently to its seduction, who her collaborators are, and what changes it’s/she’s undergoing in its relationships to the people it examines. Though Glazer may begin from a springboard of Kubrick and Bunuel, Under the Skin’s conclusion of fire and ice is one of painful emotional nakedness. It took me to the close of another film about an otherworldly and inscrutable heroine caught in the foibles of human cruelty, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.
6. BOYHOOD (Richard Linklater) Yes, the miracle of a 13-year production is worth writing about and invites allegations of gimmickry. Then there are accusations that it’s a depiction of privileged bourgeois normalcy, or that its golden child isn’t wild enough. That leads me to wonder, “What’s normal then?” If ‘normal’ is having an abusive stepparent, constantly moving from town to town with a struggling single mom, and graduating with a single reluctant friend showing up at your party, I might have taken a lot for granted. What’s funnier is that these allegations come from a lot of the same people who love director Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, which similarly has those “Maaaan, that was myyyy childhood!” adulations. But Boyhood is, by design I think, antipodal to Dazed and Confused‘s depiction of clearly defined, gendered, privileged social in-groups, where even the outcasts (are there any?) have somebody. Whereas Dazed and Confused spells out the rites of masculinity, Boyhood‘s title is ironic as Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) cannot help but grow up weary of what masculinity dictates. Consequently, he is–as his sister (Lorelei Linklater) puts it–a stick in the mud. Looking for magic while exiled in the real world, Mason reads time, attentively listening to a sermon about faith connecting to his private transcendental yearnings, and searching out his own sense of relating with photography. We should know that a film’s quality isn’t determined by “relatability,” but Boyhood has an almost Yi Yi-caliber sense of how we relate to time, passively falling into mores and rituals or detaching ourselves as observers. Though revolving around a young male, at its center (as much as with Dante’s Comedy, to which I compare it here) is a woman: Patricia Arquette’s Olivia, the abused, neglected, headstrong single mother, affected me more than any other character last year. Playing strong women who were as desirous as they were maternal wish-fulfillment fantasies from True Romance to Ed Wood to Lost Highway to Bringing Out the Dead, Olivia is the dazzling culmination of a great actor’s progression, and Arquette here is a masterpiece of presence.
7. THE IMMIGRANT (James Gray) That the suspiciously long-delayed follow-up to Two Lovers (even The Interview was given a wider release) should have found light so close to the passing of the great cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather trilogy) makes Gray’s rumination of forgotten generations and throwback to Coppola-styled melodrama all the more affecting. Marion Cotillard is flawless as Ewa, the titular Polish Catholic newly arrived to Ellis Island, who makes excruciating compromises to find a place in the messy new world of 1920s Manhattan. Gripping the delicate thread of legitimacy as bureaucracy is bent on sending her and her sickly sister back home, she finds a savior in a pretentiously suave though simmering-to-a-boil louse (Joaquin Phoenix) who prostitutes her, but who then finds himself jealously in love. Gray is a rarity, making original meat-and-potatoes stories on classic broad canvasses, channeling the American experience in a way Coppola and Kazan did years ago. His various plot points–the anti-romance between exploitative and tragic Phoenix and long-suffering Cotillard, which comes to involve a debonair illusionist played by Jeremy Renner–don’t distract us from the reverberating impact of these characters. There’s a Days of Heaven quality to what Gray achieves. We wonder who these people were and the lost world where they once tread. Darius Khondji’s cinematography of diffuse and soft amber brings us back to the Little Italy of Coppola and Willis’ The Godfather Part II, but the homage serves a bittersweet nostalgia, peaking in the intimate reflections and foggy uncertainties in the final shot’s longview.
8. THE BABADOOK (Jennifer Kent) Speaking of “Life as Literature,” there’s Jennifer Kent’s efficacious gooseflesh inducer. Essie Davis is terrific as a widow raising the troubled son (Noah Wiseman) who was born moments after a car crash killed his father. The “Babadook” is a monster found in a mysterious pop-up book portending its ineluctable arrival, a classic shadow-in-the-closet who we attempt to explain away through analysis: he’s the departed husband and father, prompting the aggrieved survivors to follow him in death; he’s the unknown dark, the unavoidable past; he’s the most wicked manifestation of sleep paralysis ever portrayed, etc. As Davis and Wiseman are so on the mark as horror-afflicted characters, intellectual explanations don’t halt Kent’s achievement from being spellbinding and terrifying stuff. She pulls it off with nary a “Startle!” and courts the uncanny, getting under the skin and eating us from the inside out. And in addition to being a great depression allegory and scary movie, The Babadook is a terribly effective way to dissuade you from ever having children. Bring your sweetheart!
9. NATIONAL GALLERY (Frederick Wiseman) “So I’m to become a non-entity,” J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) says as death approaches in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a biopic about the curmudgeonly great painter. There’s plenty of Turner’s work on display in Frederick Wiseman’s remarkable documentary about London’s National Gallery, a film that immerses us in the business of keeping the creations of several well-regarded “non-entities” alive. In addition to contexts detailed to us by lecturing tour guides, taking us beyond the mere spectating of art, there’s the bureaucracy, the cleaning and restorations, the lighting, the framing, the architecture of the exhibitive space, and the reflective quality of the floors. Wiseman’s film captures something that bounces back and perhaps irradiates ourselves, as gallery onlookers and moviegoers. Velasquez’s Baroque mirrors, pointing to the impact of reflection, are another supporting player in National Gallery, and Wiseman compels us to consider how this is all more than textual documentation or archeology. We’re taken in studios with live nude models, which may be initially awkward, though it rips away the thin diaphanous fabric separating the viewer from projected representation. Wiseman climaxes with a ballet, an ecstatic exultation of the body before Titian’s adaptation of the Metamorphoses, where Ovid connected ageless and familiar myths to the toil and trouble of human experience, of basic love and longing. A remarkable accomplishment. (Much of this was taken from my review of National Gallery, which you can read in full here).
10. THE TRIP TO ITALY (Michael Winterbottom) There’s no shortage of movie franchises running amok nowadays. Your job and romantic relationships are pretty much uncertain, but a slew of Marvel movies featuring characters you may have never heard of is locked and loaded, up to whenever Twelve Monkeys was supposed to take place (2026?) It’s too bad that the three key players of The Trip–Winterbottom, Steve Coogan, and Rob Brydon–aren’t as proactive, because their franchise is, in not only my opinion, the best thing happening. In 2011’s The Trip, Coogan and Brydon played themselves as a pair of friendly yet competitively antagonistic entertainers, traveling through northern England on The Guardian‘s pence to write a series of restaurant reviews. Brydon was the relieving jester to big time Coogan, pursuing roles in movies by “auteurs” and sleeping around while jealously thinking about his stateside girlfriend. This time around, the pair follow Byron and Shelley while ingesting loads of yummy carbs through Italy. Coogan is now the relaxed one while Brydon’s provoking celebrity impressions and quips safeguard him from some bad things happening in his own bedroom back home. And meanwhile, his main goal–while auditioning for a juicy supporting role in the new Michael Mann film–is to get to Sicily, following in the footsteps of his idol, Al Pacino. Another perfect serving of raucously funny improvisations with a chaser of melancholia, The Trip to Italy is as modest as its predecessor and maybe on first glance little more than a pleasant diversion. But again like the original, it’s so goddamn rewatchable, even addictive, that its rewards are limitless. I find it hard not to love these characters, caught between true life pressures and their creative outlets. The series is a great portrait of the barriers–even tacit antagonism–in a long friendship. It’s the bromance to beat.
Order your copy of Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, published by Cascade Books, here.
Order your copy of Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, published by Cascade Books, here.