No year is complete without a supervillain. And no, I’m not talking about Scott Rudin or North Korea. In this annus mirabilis in cinema, no one else has royally fucked-up the movie experience quite as viciously as Harvey Weinstein. If you’ve been paying attention for the last twelve months, a handful of high-profile films barely saw the commercial light of day, thanks to the shitbaggery of Weinstein, the sole perpetrator of the acts of barbarism committed to not one but three films – Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster and James Gray’s The Immigrant. You needn’t stare at these three titles long and hard to estimate the artistic weight and integrity sacrificed all in the name of commercial savagery. America saw the studio cuts in limited release, while Great Britain only had a brief glimpse of the butchered version of The Grandmaster earlier this month as Bong and Gray’s masterworks got lost in the conveyor belt of distribution.
Another thing that bedevilled the hell out of me this year was the case of Nymphomaniac: Director’s Cut. If there’s one film that failed to receive the critical stance due to either stentorian censorship or socio-political paradigms of conservatism, it’s this one. Britain, for instance, fail to fully engage with Lars von Trier’s magnum opus in its full, uncensored glory – while the five-and-a-half hour Director’s Cut caused titillation, provocation and intellectual orgasm in countries like Denmark and France, two culturally liberal nations which embraced von Trier’s work like a baby fresh from thy womb of art. And what did Britain get? A segued, four-hour version in two volumes screened for one day only (!) in London, and then it’s all straight to DVD without further ado. I had to dive into the French video-on-demand service to get the full von Trier experience.
So what I’m trying to say is this – fuck Weinstein and fuck distribution. The Moviejerk has now shifted its perspectives and changed its rules when it comes to end-of-year lists. As a writer and editor of this blog, I don’t fall privy to rustic distribution models of this country and couldn’t care less what gets distributed here or not. In fuelling the fires of passionate and honest film criticism, I personally travel to the other parts of the world to attend film festivals, engage in cinema and also surf the tectonic shifts of video-on-demand services of other countries to get to films that would otherwise fail to reach the pebbly shores of Britain. Anyone who’s genuinely passionate in cinema and film criticism won’t sit down and wait to be fed by the gilded spoons of distribution, but rather go out there and endeavour to champion great cinema regardless of size, budget or origin to a wider audience. Films are to be seen and not kept in the dark rooms of editing suites. To us, film lovers, anyone who deprives the world of a director’s pure artistic vision is a foe.
As an international blog (and a fiercely independent, I attest you), it is my duty to scour all corners of the globe and hopefully bring the best of cinema in this site. You’ll observe in this list films that you might not have seen or haven’t heard of, that’s because they haven’t been distributed yet. Since moviegoing is a subjective experience, I’ve based this list on the films I have personally seen this year (as well as the films I’ve seen late last year, but were excluded from the previous list due to the fact that I’ve strictly adhered to the modes of UK distribution). Those days are gone. This is a new era.
An era of artistic and cultural liberalism.
Before you scroll down through the list, here’s the mood-setter: the Best of Cinema 2014 montage.
And here are the 30 great films of the year.
Deliberately subtitled ‘A Zellner Adventure’, it’s a key phrase that provides some shred of classic irony to this picture’s intention – the journey undertaken by the film’s titular protagonist is laced with self-contradiction and grand delusion. To put it roughly – Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is about a jaded Japanese woman who travels all the way from Tokyo to Minnesota to locate a bag of loot, after seeing Steve Buscemi burying a heap of dollars somewhere under the North Dakota snow in the Coen brothers’ seminal classic Fargo. It’s one thing to take a cue from a Coens film and to make the concept sound and look convincing without betraying the spirit of its source inspiration is another, and the Zellners manage to pull off an elegiac, occasionally funny and devastating thesis on the power of cinematic escapism. The existential banality of Kumiko’s claustrophobic life, here painfully portrayed in detail, leads this deeply introverted, antisocial heroine to desperately pursue monetary gain and subsequent happiness only to land on a shattering truth – the nonexistence of the American dream as portrayed in American movies. On top of that, this is one of cinema’s most saddening portrait of .
The film that made explicit penis and ejaculation shots trending back into 2014. Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake (L’inconnu du Lac) emerged from Cannes last year as a provocative triumph, poised to shock, arouse, astound, bore and defile in equal measure, depending on your tolerance for gay cruising activities. Here, graphic sexual shenanigans are portrayed with such blasé approach, Guiraudie’s stylistically spare aesthetic, cyclical structure and a very-French cinematic sensibility lend this film some candid naturalism, despite the increasingly dark, deepening Patricia Highsmith-esque moral fog that suffuse the idyllic picture in its latter half. The director builds a bold, subversive psychodrama that’s engrossing and rigorously shot throughout, populating his screen with characters swaying along to the push-and-pull of desire. No judgement is thrown here – Guiraudie studies queer morals for what it really means to the gay community, free from hypocrisy. “You people have a strange way of loving each other,” an investigator comments on the dubious state-of-affairs of this lake-world, which seems to be Guiraudie’s thesis on the slippery nature of gay relations. Sex is perilous, yes, but when love and affections are involved, it makes the picture even more dangerous.
Few filmmakers make relationship dramas as beguilingly sincere and perceptive as Ira Sachs. This New York-based director has given us Keep The Lights On, perhaps one of the most subtle, honest and emotionally excoriating relationship dramas of any gender category produced in the last few years, and his follow-up Love Is Strange is no less sophisticated. Where he explored the rough fluctuations of a thirtysomething affair in Lights, he leaps on the other side of the age spectrum and plumbs with benevolent empathy and tenderness the less portrayed terrain of mature gay love, casting Alfred Molina and John Lithgow (both affecting) as an ageing couple, who – after almost 40 years of being together – consummate their lives in the city’s newly legalised marriage, only to to find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Throughout 94 minutes, we witness their tribulations, quietly shouldered with fortitude and a little help from friends, and come out at the other end a touch wiser. Love Is Strange feels small, yes, but it’s never less than universal, painting a poignant, humane and soulful portrait of love in maturity. Above all, it aims for a collective understanding – that we can be a much more progressive society if the human beings living in it have enough compassion and tolerance for love in all its various forms and genders.
The Babadook isn’t the most original of horror films – psychotic, hell-raising parent terrorising their kids to nightmarish oblivion is the stuff of Kubrick canon – but what Aussie Jennifer Kent does to elevate this from the bargain-basement horror films of recent years is through unnerving execution and thematic resonance. It simulates familiar, if not entirely rote, genre elements (storybooks, creepy kid, anxious mum) to unearth deeper human psychological traumas and mental disturbance to disturbing effect rarely seen in cinema since Polanski’s heyday. Take this as a surreal yet equally frightening horror concoction of Polanski’s diptych masterpiece Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, as well as Kubrick’s The Shining, where protagonists descend into mental and ontological breakdown, deep into visceral madness where real human terror reign. Kent posits that there’s nothing as harrowing as the loss of a loved one, and here, grief becomes the elephant in the room. It’s grief that turns people into monsters, and hell hath no fury than a mother at the end of her emotional tether, as Essie Davis’ initially nerve-wracked matron Amelia morphs into a blazing, ferocious, flaming diablo that no bogeyman in a dark closet can match. Loss is life’s real terror and loneliness is horror unto itself.
To be fair, any film with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston pimping it in leather apparel, wearing shades in nightclubs, is the epitome of cinematic cool, but Jim Jarmusch has given us something better. A joyously sarcastic, intelligent vampire film that employs vampirism as a thematic device to rule out good from bad taste, sophisticates from the unthinking masses, great art from the deteriorating popular culture. In his most striking and lyrical film in years, Only Lovers Left Alive both celebrates the almost forgotten world of high culture and laments the erosion of twenty-first century civilisation and above all, positing vampires as the ultimate artistic snobs – bound to protect the literary Old Guard and doomed to watch the world rot with our current motley of cultural trash. Swinton’s shrewd Eve and Hiddleston’s world-weary Adam mourn the clusterfuck that is modern society, as they suck on organic human blood ice lollies, listen to soul music and wax lyrical on happy days with Byron and Wollstonecraft. There isn’t much by way of plot, but that hardly matters as this is one of the most sophisticated vampire films to emerge in at least a decade. A bizarrely stylish, deliciously deadpan and eccentric mix of funny, sad and romantic – all laced with dark wit and laconic observations. A terrific antidote and critique to all po-faced, witless, artless vampire movies that besiege our cinemas as of late.
Earlier in 2014, this was the solid contender for best film of year. It’s the Coen brothers’ most assured, melancholic work in ages, with music so soulful it digs well and deep into our own existential omphalos. Most of us mortals who have gone through a hard knock life, particularly creatives who battle rejections and misfortunes at every turn, could relate to Inside Llewyn Davis, a tender, bittersweet paean to life’s disappointments, tribulations, lousy friends, irritant ex-lovers, hitchhiking on snow, endless couch-surfing,being perpetually skint and failing at everything else you do. Strip away the music and we have an ultra-bleak, bloody depressing movie, existentially grim enough to put you in the gloom for a good month. This is exactly the polar opposite of a Hollywood triumphalist movie – but in the wonderful, exquisite hands of the Coens, Inside Llewyn Davis win us entirely over, making hardship look and feel rarely this splendid. The Coens hit all the perfect notes – like a bittersweet folk song that sings an ode to life’s disappointments and unfulfilled dreams. Beneath a deceptively simple narrative and offbeat humour of an artist’s mischief and tribulations lies a profound existential pain.
Pacifism has always been central to Hayao Miyazaki’s art, and The Wind Rises couldn’t be a finer example of his philosophy. The illustrative realism and naturalistic strokes are often breathtaking, taking into consideration the small foibles of life that affect geniuses like its protagonist Jiro Horikoshi, including his modulated romance with his sweet-tempered wife Naoko. It’s made all the more affecting since this idyll cannot last long, his wife’s tuberculosis ravaging her slowly from within – a heartbreaking historical metaphor to Japan’s war-mongering disease looming in the horizon, which will soon decimate and spoil this bucolic landscape. That aching feeling is ever present here, with Miyazaki conveying a specific melancholy of an artist, lamenting his national system’s perversion of a beautiful invention. This is, arguably, one of the most elegiac, philosophical and achingly beautiful works in the Studio Ghibli canon. Miyazaki’s swansong sends a tender ode to dreams, passion, love and mortality with such maturity and grace. For a film about flight, it’s so grounded in melancholy and humility, with Miyazaki creating a work of pacifist art that quietly indicts militarism and man’s capacity to perverse the beauty of inventions.
Movie mentors aren’t exactly that rare in cinema, but J.K. Simmons’ egomaniacal, ruthlessly demanding conservatory-school jazz teacher in Whiplash stand out from the throng. He’s a manipulative monster lurking behind the ambition and sagacity to pluck great talent from a band of mediocrity. His Terence Fletcher is inspiring one minute and utterly hideous the next, you’d pretty much guarantee your neck being gutted with a cymbal if you were his student. Turns out one student stands up against his vicious putdowns in the form of Miles Teller, who’s at his sheer riveting best in his entire acting career thus far. The mad-mentor-vs-prodigious-pupil narrative trajectory treads on familiar beats in many places, but Whiplash really spreads its vainglorious wings in the film’s wondrous finale, where Damien Chazelle drums up a spectacle of stage hellfire, a musical duel of egos, talent and one-upmanship that’s dizzying, electrifying and literally breathtaking. I swear you’d need a respirator after seeing this finale alone – emulating the breathlessly jazzed-up cinematic candence of Bob Fosse, swirling verve, energy and intensity into film form. But in summation, Whiplash does to jazz drumming what Black Swan did to ballet – portraying the punishing extremes a talent goes for all in the name of art and greatness. Unoriginal yet awe-inspiring, nonetheless.
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s gruelling The Tribe extracts one of the most rudimentary elements of cinema (and life, for that matter), taking vocal communication away and leaves us with only with vision and sign language to deal with. Imbeciles who expect to be furnished with subtitles should stay far away, as this bold, experimental slice of cinema challenges our deepest instincts to read gestures, bodily movements and expressions to capacitate comprehension. The Tribe portrays an unforgiving world set in a deaf-mute school deep in the vestiges of dog-eat-dog Ukrainian society, where denizens are left to fend off for themselves in a quasi-post-apocalyptic milieu. The result is a relentlessly grim, Cristian Mungiu-esque vista of brutality, psychological violence, laced with a commentary on socio-politics. Narratively, it’s the stuff Euro arthouse cinema has been depicting for years, most particularly resembling Lukas Moodysson’s equally bleak Lilja 4-ever, and themes of bullying and school-ground savagery have been depicted in countless of other films, but perhaps not as startlingly primal and extraordinarily alarming as this. Where basic vocal communication fails, our hands and faces are the two principal conduits for our most intrinsic human emotions, and in Slaboshpitsky’s thesis, so is our capacity for perpetuate inhumanity and violence.
In this day and age where everything has to be signposted, The Duke of Burgundy defiantly obfuscates, teases and mystifies with its cyclical narrative and dream-logic sequences – all ever so elusive that perhaps only an holy alliance between cinematic messiahs David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, Luis Buñuel and Rainer Werner Fassbinder could ever produce. And yet it’s no art-school hybrid – it’s an honest-to-goodness sensory experience specifically calibrated to intoxicate the eyes and seduce the mind, with Strickland melding vintage aesthetics with a refreshingly anti-modernist sensibilities au fait with 70’s cinema. Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a clear precedent, where an alternate, exclusive world is bereft of patriarchy, where women dominate every inch of the picture, calibrating their own social dynamics. Here, Strickland obliterates the feminist debate and strictly locates womanhood under a microscope (all gorgeously draped in high-end couture fashion and the occasional lingerie) and subsequently identifying role-play and the nature of sadomasochism between the same sex (S&M by Prada, if you will). Despite its kink factor, femininity and love take audacious forms – sexual, sardonic, luscious, sensual, earnest and purely fathomless – and a rousing insight into female sexual power-play is filtered through Strickland’s seductive lens and dazzling narrative audacity, which is, quite frankly, what cinema is invented for.
Somewhere amidst the congregation of masterworks that openly criticise religious dogma – a pitiless party attended by Lars von Trier’s Breaking The Waves, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills – Dietrich Brüggemann’s debut film Stations of the Cross sits like a seemingly milquetoast member of the artful crowd, quietly and unassumingly unfolding its provocations not through big, bold auteurist strokes, but through its small yet no less profound observations. Every frame, every long-take and cinematic rigour present in Brüggemann’s work begs comparison and reference to its aforementioned forebears. Yet this is no mere pastiche – this is perhaps one of the finest recent examples of technically rigorous filmmaking, using form and content to often stunning purpose, simmering with intelligence and fury, questioning the outmoded practices of religious fundamentalism and the effects of indoctrination to young, malleable minds. And rarely has formalism been recently employed to such exactitude and purpose, and Stations of the Cross demonstrates the heights rigorous filmmaking can achieve. A corrosive indictment on religious fundamentalism as much as a scathing critique on draconian parenting, this exceptionally mounted film channels unalloyed fury through its austere camera, allowing us to observe with wide eyes open how religious dogma impairs the ontological growth of our children.
True to its title, Wild Tales is both hysterical and satirical, cinematic portmanteau at its sharpest, most scabrous and damning. This collection of six moral stories essays society at all levels – from waitresses, lawmen, teachers, parents, girlfriends, wives, husbands, gardeners and even demolition experts – Damián Szifrón spares no one from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie, both scathingly and hilariously indicting systems, bureaucracy, human morality and even the most basic of social structures – marriage. This Argentinian tableaux is most reminiscent to Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, where characters are pushed into the verge of vengeance, but Szifrón delivers something Zhangke has ignored: black humour. Society’s self-imposed conventions are ridiculous and laughable, hence laughter seems to be the best form of catharsis in this context, and Wild Tales gives us a pulpy, Tarantino-esque levels of dark, gruesome hilarity, as razor-sharp storytelling waltzes inextricably with pitch-black commentary on an entity we call the “human species”. A few have been put off by this seemingly patchy and disconnected stories, but this is no Magnolia, let’s face it. It all takes a closer look at what Szifrón is trying to stitch together thematically – this is a patchwork of life built to expose the self-serving hypocrisies of our society, packaged in one damn fine, glorious, riotously dark entertainment.
Both ambitiously tackling Big Themes and commiting to Great Art, Leviathan‘s complex yet elegantly subtle unfleshing of its classical Dostoyevskian narrative of systemic corruption and bureaucratic nightmare packs a loadstone of gravitas and dramatic weight rare in any picture made today. Like a great, untold Russian novel, Andrei Zvyagintsev focuses on the drama of individual vs. forces of nature and offering up a worldview of cynicism that’s both bleak and compelling. In this northern part of Russia, the seaside harbour is tainted with the carcasses of wrecked ships and more significantly, the bare skeletons of a whale. Shot in shades of blue-greys and wintry Bergman-esque classicism, it’s in this specific moment that Leviathan emerges as an allegory of the Russian state, the carcass prefiguring the elephant in the room – decaying morality. Before the film wrenches a coruscating critique on the big guns of Russia i.e. religion and politics, Leviathan implodes into a family tragedy, further questioning lost principles like loyalty, honour, family and friendship in the most atomic of all social structures. No stone is left unturned in this intimate epic, and it turns out that in Zvyagintsev’s bleak yet richly nuanced worldview, perhaps only vodka is the purest remaining essence in a diluted, corrupted land. It makes perfect sense that its protagonist Nikolai believes in nothing else but vodka.
Suffering at the hands of Weinstein, Wong Kar Wai’s decades-spanning martial arts epic The Grandmaster has emerged into the West as a butchered, technically flawed piece of cinema that fell victim to the ravages of an editing suite. Not all films need to be as short of a Disney movie and Weinstein has commercialised what is intended to be art cinema. In encompassing the breadth of Ip Man’s story and legacy, time itself becomes an essential canvas where Wong could paint in deep, elongated strokes. The Chinese Cut I’ve seen is long and languorous, but also exquisite in its pacing, allowing us to fully bask into the increasingly heartbreaking portrait of two people fighting for their traditions and culture to preserve their art against the unstoppable waves of time, a force of nature where we all emerge, philosophically, as nothing but fragments of history. Wong comprehends this beautifully, as he creates a cinematic duet charting an impossible love affair between Tony Leung’s Ip Man and Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er (daughter to Ip Man’s rival), the latter turning into a tragic figure of vengeance. Sure, there are superior martial arts pictures out there, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero to name two, but the final hour of The Grandmaster is one of the most visually poetic, classically elegiac pieces of cinema I’ve seen for a long time. Wong elevates this beautifully choreographed martial arts movie into a sombre lamentation of a dying artform, with Leung and Ziyi both providing unexpected emotional depth, sadness and humanity.
Pawel Pawlikowki now has a film he can call his very own masterpiece. Ida, like its own stark title, is sublimely resonant and singular, shorn of historical fat and yet heaving with such emotional and existential baggage, confronting the traumas of World War II through riveting minimalism – an invigorating approach in this age of maximal overdrive. Shot in stunning Bressonian black-and-white aesthetic, transposed in Academy ratio, Pawlikowski purposefully limits the aspect ratio, squeezing the protagonist’s perspective and knowledge of her past within the screen, as if all the pain, grief and torturous history are there on the side, on those parallel black bars – unseen yet deeply felt. The characters are pushed to the corners of the frame, either reduced to mere diminutive figures or shot unconventionally with missing facial or bodily features, as if we’re denied from a complete picture. It’s a deliberately artful choice, but not without justification. The sorrow and trauma will always be there, and these broken people will never, ever be whole in their lifetime. And where other films of the same ilk (the sort of ilk that touches on the vast, inconceivable horrors of the Holocaust, memories of war and its lasting scars) would easily resort to sentimentalism, soundtracked to John Williams’ orchestra, Ida remains staunchly and realistically sober throughout. And yet the grief here digs so deep it’ll leave bruises.
Of all the films listed here, Yann Gonzalez’s You and the Night is perhaps the most unexpected entry. It’s absurd, abstract and slightly preposterous, billed with a premise that’ll make your eyes roll like a dice. But it’s not included in this list for no reason. What begins as an outrageously contrived, raunchy French orgy movie soon transforms into a cinematically aware and breathtakingly soulful paean to nocturnal existentialism, as well as the cinema of Resnais, Ozon, Almodovar and Pasolini. Seven night creatures gather together for an exercise of blasé carnality, and what is initially intended to be a fleeting seven-way fuck becomes a long evening of intimacy, as each one weaves their personal stories, their innermost fears and desires, and at the same time breaking down barriers – age, gender, class, time. The ridiculous becomes ethereal, the kitsch turns unabashedly affectionate and the comic confessions metamorphose into something profound. Gonzales conjures some 80’s electro alchemy, complete with M83’s shimmering synths, against a protean canvas – the stylised sets, philosophical musings and melancholic tales told through lustful, gleaming frames – and it’s all imbued with genuine feeling and exquisite existential ache. It’s a film that’s profoundly drunk with cinematic amour fou and French insouciance. A stunning cine-rhapsody that’s sexual, sensuous, emotional and breathtakingly alive with possibilities.
By now, Wes Anderson has made a name for himself as the King of Quirk. And with The Grand Budapest Hotel, there’s nary an iota of doubt he’s arrived as an established auteur. This is perhaps the most Andersonian of all Anderson movies. It’s a gorgeously realised film in thrall of filmmaking itself – an elaborately structured, highly cine-literate comedy that dazzlingly weaves not just one but three interlocking narratives, spanning across decades and shifting from one aspect ratio to the next and then another, serving a distinctly Euro-flavoured confection. Here, historical resonance at its darkest (i.e. the rise of fascism) is handled with lightweight Lubitschean sensibility, but never with carelessness, and in pure Anderson fashion – no meticulous framing, tracking shot, backdrop detail and a Russian-doll narrative device is left unaffected by delightful whimsy. True to the director’s nimble and vibrant signature storytelling, 100 mins fly by and The Grand Budapest Hotel ambitiously swathes a few film genres, defying easy categorisation along the way. More than just a hotel memoir, Anderson manages to pack in a heist movie, a crime caper, a prison-break film, wartime noir, family drama and a buddy comedy. But if we were to judge an entire film by its aesthetics alone, then this would be one of the most beautifully shot and grandiosely designed films in the last ten years. It’s a visual feast – and yet beneath the shiny ornate caprices, there’s Anderson quietly lamenting a bygone Romantic age of Europe, of the cultured yesteryear and the passage of time, making way for a brutal modernism. This film pleads us to look back and enjoy the glorious past.
Expectations were high on David Fincher’s film adaptation of a renowned bestseller, and the millions who worshipped the tome heaved a collective sigh of relief. In this age of sub-par literary adaptations, Fincher’s Gone Girl arrives like a miracle – a work of modern cinema that displays dynamic filmmaking with such dark, dazzling intensity, calculated yet no less adroit for its editing techniques and bravura mise en scène. There’s rarely a frame that Fincher works with quiet exactitude, allowing this scatological dissection of marriage and madness crackle with electricity on screen, thanks to Gillian Flynn’s word-perfect screenplay. If anything, this is the most subversive film to come out of a Hollywood studio in 2014, a black-as-night critique of the Great American Marriage, cynically tearing down the delusions of our age to reveal the deep-seated narcissism and hypocrisies of many relationships. It’s basically Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage with a lot of blood, played to potboiler noir dynamics, with Rosamund Pike’s ferociously bitter wife Amy as a suburban femme fatale out to unleash an epic tirade of retaliation and Mephistophelean scorn on his hapless, down-on-his-luck husband (played to perfection by Ben Affleck). A few have scoffed at Gone Girl‘s pseudo-feminist material. They obviously missed the point. Feminism isn’t Gone Girl‘s desideratum. It’s a devilish piece of entertainment with something truthful to say about the lies in marriages. End of discussion.
In a year that’s given us two Studio Ghibli films, Hayao Miyazaki’s swansong The Wind Rises could have easily taken this higher spot, but Isao Takahata’s back-to-basics animated folklore The Tale of Princess Kaguya deserves a loftier mention. It swaps contemporary pixels with classical brushstrokes, painting a deeply melancholic handcrafted work of divine art. Every frame is beautifully, painstakingly drawn, its bucolic canvas etched with the saddening nostalgia of happier days. And halfway through, as the titular princess runs away from her
palace fortress, Takahata gives us a coup de cinéma – the picture quite literally scrawled with angry, dark charcoal, a figure in red dashing through a wintry forest drawn in hasty graphite. Rarely does the medium of hand-drawn animation convey such heartbreaking poetry in motion. Takahata, as demonstrated in his previous masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies, understands human sadness and he displays this soulfully well in Kaguya, a film that yearns for simpler, purer essence of life, a delicate meditation on happiness and what it really means. Its protagonist, a girl borne from a bamboo tree and soon proclaimed to be a royal with untold wealth, enjoys a pastoral childhood and struggles to embrace an aristocratic living in her teens, shaking off suitors wilfully like a Jane Austen heroine. For beneath this seemingly basic, straightforward fable is a tale of feminism, of a headstrong woman who defies social conventions, patriarchy and inequality, of a woman whose wisdom and melancholy come from a deeper place. If the film’s ending doesn’t make you shed a tear, then there’s no shred of humanity left in there. This is one of Ghibli’s masterworks.
Few films are as burnished and as classically composed as James Gray’s The Immigrant, which is exasperating given the picture’s troubled history with Weinstein. Only last week The Weinstein Company added Gray’s film to the Academy screening website, probably realising its Oscar potential. I’ve seen this in Cannes last year, and until now, the UK still hasn’t seen a cut. It’s a great shame as The Immigrant feels and looks like a direct lineage of the Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking, with touches of Coppola and Leone brimming through its pulchritudinous, sepia-hued frames, its drama harks back to the glory days of Kazan. Marion Cotillard does her second best Maria Falconetti-inspired performance, her face becoming Gray’s conduit for compassion, her odyssey through the streets and brothels of 1920’s New York feels utterly poignant. There are no big, dramatic fireworks here – it’s all about nuance. Thankfully free from showboating, Cotillard makes it the more remarkable for giving her character an understated gravitas – her suffering all the more resonant and dignified by her refusal to overplay the Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulski, a role that could have begged sympathy in the doldrums. Her experience of America is something that’s painfully universal, a land hustled by opportunists and salesmen peddling broken dreams to corruptible waifs.
In any Alejandro González Iñárritu film, art and existentialist bleakness precede entertainment. You don’t really expect joy from a director whose filmography include bleak-as-fuck treatises of life such as Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Biutiful. With his fifth feature film Birdman, Iñárritu hasn’t only discovered his exuberant side but also devised his most magnificent creation – a radiantly rambunctious ball of sublime craft, hyper-emotion, razor-sharp intelligence, withering honesty and good dose of dark existentialism. This is, without a doubt, his masterpiece – his All That Jazz, his 8 1/2, his All About Eve – skewering theatre, performance and the movies through a gloriously self-aware meta-filmmaking, and yet remaining absolutely heartfelt and truthful about the incorrigible ego and vanity of acting, the excruciating struggle of self-worth and the inevitability of ageing. Through this, Iñárritu has managed to resurrect Michael Keaton from the Hollywood ashes, playing a washed-up, decaying has-been who’s cockiness is at perpetual war with inner self-deprecation. The ensemble that includes a fine roster of actors such as Norton, Watts, Stone, Riseborough all provide incredible supporting turns, but it’s Keaton who rises with a performance for the ages, painting a gruelling, existential spectacle of human creative crisis made immortal by a searing commitment to art.
For those who haven’t seen Snowpiercer, commiserate. The fools who were banging on about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar as 2014’s sci-fi event cinema obviously haven’t laid their retinas on Bong Joon-ho’s new one, which is still stranded without UK distribution. A veritable clusterfuck, orchestrated by Weinstein, leaving this enthralling, brilliantly executed piece of allegorical sci-fi cinema under-seen and under-appreciated. Snowpiercer is, pound-by-pound, scene-by-scene, hard-hitting, brainy, politically aware brand of filmmaking our world needs these days, encapsulating humanity’s primordial class war inside the microcosm of a speeding train. Gilliam’s Brazil, Cuarón’s Children of Men, the French Revolution, Orwell’s 1984 are a few of its diverse cultural forebears, but it’s really Fritz Lang’s incendiary Metropolis that directly influences Bong’s vision – a hierarchical structure of society laid horizontally on the ground, commencing with the oppressed cattle class at the rear end and ending with the ruling elite at the front. This classic tale of uprising is even made the more claustrophobic, thanks to its post-apocalyptic setting, a self-inflicted frozen world devised by man. This is Bong’s most ambitious, triumphant work to date – a violent, bruising, propulsive blockbuster of the highest order, supercharged with pulse-pounding execution and artistic panache. In the current renaissance of the thinking man’s sci-fi, this belongs up there in the pantheon alongside Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.
Not many really dig Ari Folman’s The Congress, which is perfectly understandable because it contains some of the most WTF imagery you’ll see in films in the last decade. At least in my interpretation, anyone who’s sold their souls to the Hollywood machine, unthinkably prescribed to the mainstream bullshit factory, churning nonsense after the other, would deem The Congress as too difficult to fathom or too unconventional to fit any identifiable groove because it doesn’t follow an easily digestible narrative such as the easily digestible Guardians of the Galaxy and all its other dumb cousins. But any individual with a fully functional cluster of brain cells and fostering the capacity to contemplate for themselves would be scintillated by Folman’s visionary work, which openly criticises the very same industry that cannibalise actors, players and the audience who have constantly bought the formulaic fantasy Hollywood has been peddling since fuck knows when. It melds live-action with 70’s retro animation to often breathtaking effect, purposefully fusing the medium of cinema and graphical art to concoct a potent philosophical critique to the cultural delusions of our age. This is our current zeitgeist laid out in bitmap, and Robin Wright (brave and beautiful) goes the pixellated route to fully comprehend the saddening truth of a world overtaken by heartless commercialism. Illusion has become the bestselling product, and humanity has vanished into the butthole of CGI escapism and celebrity-obsessed culture. For beneath this WTF imagery, Folman pours pure passion, anger and insight into this fiercely audacious work of avant-garde art.
Watching Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History is like reading through Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – long and arduous but enlightening and ultimately rewarding. It’s no surprise that this is a modernist reworking of that revered Russian tome, bringing this tale of a man’s descent into moral and philosophical turmoil into the Philippine socio-political milieu over four hours of unhurried, slow-burn cinema. Time and length are not the director’s prime concerns, fiercely refusing to adhere to our general concept of length and using his camera as a physical observer of the quiet rhythm of life and human survival in this part of the world where time seems frozen in nonexistence. Diaz lets his camera linger too long in some occasions, but even those near-silent longueurs carry so much thematic weight. From first scene to last, Norte charts this enthralling odyssey with startling honesty and an almost brutal awareness – densely navigating through the Big Themes of human morality, corrupted justice, religion, existentialism and the political system with unpretentious, vivid and clear-eyed fury. The three principal characters of Norte go through fathomless hardship, injustice, inhumanity and brave society’s ills, and throughout its running time, what they experience feel utterly universal. Diaz allows us to ruminate man’s place in society, our responsibility to those victimised by the system and to feel for those suffering of injustice perpetuated by those who should know and act better. This may be one of the most important films to come out of Asia over the last decade.
The Dardennes brothers have been mining the epic Sisyphean toils of the working-class throughout their sublime filmography, and Two Days, One Night is one of their finest variations. It’s a masterful study of empathy, compassion and composure at the face of tribulations, up there with The Son, The Child and Rosetta, supercharged, unsurprisingly, by an immensely measured and deeply affecting performance by one of Earth’s greatest living actress Marion Cotillard. Her Sandra, a solar-power company worker threatened with employment redundancy, stoically, if reluctantly, wrangles her way through the fabric of her community to keep her job and a continuous payroll – and all the while gathering up all shreds of courage and moral vein despite an imminent breakdown, insecurity and depression. Anyone who works in corporate-ruled milieu will find plenty to sympathise here – it’s the most heartbreakingly humane piece of cinema this year. Whenever Cotillard breaks down, there’s a gut-wrenching punch that knocks deep in your stomach, and even more devastating when she forces back down a well of emotions and tears to bravely seek compassion (not pity) from the people around her. This is what makes the Dardennes brothers two of the most humane filmmakers working today, because they force us to inquire our own moral and philosophical instincts as human beings, to step into the shoes into their characters and view the world from their perspective without bias and judgement.
At plain sight, Richard Linklater’s chronicle-of-a-life Boyhood seems ordinary and not particularly groundbreaking or bold in its thematic concerns. Watch every coming-of-age movie and you’ll see a bit of Boyhood in it. But what makes Linklaters’s film truly, incredibly special is the execution in which it takes a snapshot of life, growing up and everything in between, transcending cinema as a medium of experience and taking the camera across real Earth time (twelve years, specifically) to chart the development of a certain youth. Truffaut has done it with his Antoine Doinel series, where Jean-Pierre Léaud grows up in the front of the camera, and Linklater takes an even more ambitious approach by distilling years into a single film. It’s a genius technique and yet utterly simple, but no less risky for it. This particularly stands out compared to many coming-of-age movies is in its logistical achievement of overcoming the real-time challenges of real people and their physical . One can only imagine the risks involved – sickness, death and life’s natural occurrences could literally stall the project for good – so it’s all the more remarkable that Linklater managed to steer this film into the finish line. It’s a testament to the creative commitment of, undoubtedly, one of America’s brightest, enduring filmmakers – and also to the four main players involved, Coltrane, Arquette, Hawke and Linklater’s daughter, who all pursued to give us something akin to a lightning in a bottle for us to behold and cherish over time.
Any year with Under The Skin in it could do nothing wrong. Jonathan Glazer’s startlingly stripped-back, sinister sci-fi is one of the most original works to emerge from the genre in years. Altogether a study on alienation and rumination on Earth-bound humanity through the perspective of an otherwordly being, it defiantly refuses to conform to a plot-ridden formula and rather darkly blooms in cool abstraction and often harrowing, wordless intensity, like being plunged headlong into a Kubrickian nightmare that will fuck with your head, get in your nerves and haunt your darkest dreams. Add in Mica Levi’s moody, unsettling score and Scarlett Johansson’s icily mesmeric central performance, we have a profoundly eerie beast of movie that opposes comparison and categorisation. Existentialism, female sexuality and male emasculation are a few of the film’s readings, which Under The Skin will surely raise a few debates about. But in the latter half when Johansson’s cold, blank gaze slowly unravel a curiosity and deep mournfulness, we see the film through the eyes of this enigmatic interloper with a morally dubious mission only leads us to discover the vast complexity of our own humanity, from kindness to downright wretchedness. A feat so strangely yet beguilingly put forth by Johansson’s elusive and multi-layered performance. And when Glazer drops the drama and goes full-on surreal, the result is an inky black magnificence that’s jaw-droppingly trance-like.
The true test of a film’s greatness is how well it stays in our collective minds long after we see it. Spike Jonze’s digital age romance Her is the one film in this list I’ve seen the longest, approximately last year in Piccadilly, that every time I pass by the place, I think about Her. The most wondrous element in Jonze’s screenplay is how he managed to make Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely human Theodore Twombly and Scarlett Johansson’s velvet-voiced operating system Samantha feel as genuine as any corporeal relationship, which says an awful lot to a world constantly plugged in to devices big and small. And instead of criticising our constant reliance on technology, Jonze sincerely wants us to open our hearts and minds and embrace our remarkable digital age. Human relationships are fragile whichever part of the time spectrum you’re in, so fuck it, allow yourselves some happiness when you can. In Her, in a not-so-distant, pastel-hued futuristic metropolis, emotions have become commodities, sold and packaged for sentimentally-challenged customers, and operating systems have become the constant, tolerant companions of detached souls. And Samantha is allowed, like any other curious mind, to inquire, grow, develop and even reach beyond the relationship and into the circle of others. Love, in Jonze’s thesis, is ever-growing, takes shapes, forms and constantly evolving. It’s one of the most poetic, perceptive, poignant and resonant films about love and modern 21st century loneliness.
At 25, Xavier Dolan has achieved most of us underachievers could ever dream of. And with the arrival of Mommy – well, you can consider his name to rank alongside the world’s fiercely ingenuous filmmakers, dead or alive. His fifth feature film isn’t only his finest, but also one of the most show-stopping, emotionally exhilarating movies about mothers ever made. Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, Almodovar’s All About My Mother and Bong Joon-ho’s Mother come to mind, but it’s Dolan’s fraught portrayal of a full-throttle pseudo-Oedipal relationship between a ferociously unflappable matriarch and her abrasive, ADHD-ridden problem son that hits where it hurts so goddamned hard. Motherhood knows no tribulations, and Diane ‘Die’ Després (Anne Dorval, hands-over-mouth exceptional) deals with Steve, a force of nature, an unhinged storm that can swerve from hyper-affection to terrifying violence (Antoine-Olivier Pilon, magnetic and vibrant), with such generous, conflicted emotions. That when the two figures clash, the result is a blitzkrieg drama of heart-shattering proportions. Dolan charts all the ups and down with such restless energy, mirroring the son Steve’s unstable mental and psychological states, from overwhelming sadness to ecstatic highs. And when he opens the frame from the constricted 1:1 aspect ratio to a full widescreen scope, he lends cinematic technique with devastating meaning and purpose. It’s a tour-de-force that will be spoken about in film schools in years to come.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to 2014’s ballsiest, riskiest and most iconoclastic picture. For all its sheer complexities and sprawling length, Lars von Trier’s magnum opus can only really be digested a whole, in its pure, unadulterated Director’s Cut. What you’ve seen in its shittily brief theatrical run is merely scratching the surface, as the full five-and-a-half hour vision includes censorship-defying scenes that penetrate deep into Nymphomaniac‘s treatise against kitsch, sentimentality and above all, human hypocrisy. This is an audacious, fearless work of multifarious art that gloriously rebuffs conventional cinematic narrative in the same way its central protagonist Joe refuses to conform to society’s preconceived notions of the female sex. What starts as a tragicomic sex odyssey delves further down into the dark abyss of the human condition writhing with insatiable lust, pain, self-degradation and the profound, inconsolable sadness of being an outcast. Von Trier bares his naked mind, soul and artistic spunk through Joe’s long night, preceded by a rollercoaster life, of bildungsroman, and throws all inhibitions in a Sadean descent to moral and philosophical chasm rarely approached by many, all the while demonstrating such fierce, unapologetic intelligence, furiously swiping at society’s blatant judgements, cowardly branding and dreary conformism. It’s the most powerful, subversive fuck you von Trier has thrown to society at large, hammering home a manifesto of liberal female sexuality as culturally significant as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover when it was published in 1928. Ultimately, Nymphomaniac asks us to grow a pair of balls, confront issues that are deemed as taboos – and continually prod, provoke, question and incite, if that’s what it takes to open people’s minds. If that isn’t the purpose of provocative cinema, then what is there left for human art?
And since I’m feeling so generous, I’m giving away The Moviejerk’s Best of Cinema 2014: The Magazine Edition for free. You’re welcome.