Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Best Films of 2014

2014 was a strong year for films. There were several totally original, mind-bending and other superlative-words films. In a previous post, I listed what I thought were the best mainstream films of the year. Here is the link to that post. What follows is my list for the best art-house films of the year. Most of these are what I would call independent or foreign films.

1. Norte, the End of History. A four-hour and ten-minute long retelling of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment set in the Philippines, it's a philosophical commentary on the powerlessness of the very poor and the ineffectual nature of the intellectuals to change anything. Norte tells a bleak story of a man falsely accused of a brutal murder and the parallel story of an intellectual ubermensch who decides to carve out his own moral universe. The style of the film is totally original. Every shot is a long take, each lasting at least five minutes. I fond Norte moving, intellectually engaging, tragic and achingly beautiful. I wish that everyone in the middle and upper classes would watch it. They would learn something about institutional poverty and the undeserved privileges of the rich, but I realize my wish is futile. Still, it's available on Netflix.

2. The Missing Picture. One of the most original documentaries I have ever seen, The Missing Picture is a memoir of a Khmer Rouge survivor who reflects on his childhood and life in a concentration camp. Instead of reenactments, the director Rithy Pahn uses painted clay figurines to reconstruct the events described in the narration. The effect of the figurines is something like the effect of the cat and mouse comics in Art Spiegelman's Maus. In Maus and The Missing Picture, we see the horrors of the Holocaust and Auschwitz in the first and the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in the latter, but there is something of a distancing effect because of the medium and style of the images. The distancing effect actually makes the horrors more accessible, paradoxically pulling the reader/audience in closer. Instead of turning away, we learn something as we watch The Missing Picture. It's a poetic treatment about a tragic moment in history. Also available on Netflix.

3. Birdman. This is a film for those who love film making and the theater. Almost the entire movie (probably 98%) is shot in a single fluid long take, following different characters as they walk up and down stairs into dressing rooms and onto and off the stage. The camera transitions from day to night by simply tilting up and using digital effects. It's a remarkable feat of cinematography and purposeful special effects. Michael Keaton plays an aging actor retired from the superhero films of his younger years (clearly there are loose parallels with Keaton's own life). He risks everything to direct, produce and act in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story to appear on Broadway. He also may or may not have actual superhero powers. And this is what makes the film brilliant--the ambiguity. Nothing is completely clear in this smart rumination on life, theater and performance. Brilliant performances by Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone.

4. Under the Skin. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien life form who borrows the skin of a woman, seduces a series of men, and begins to explore what it means to be human. It's a haunting, mysterious, and enigmatic film that in no way spells out its own meaning. We never find out why the aliens do what they do, nor do we know what the black room scene means (you'll know what I mean if you see it). I couldn't help wonder whether the aliens who are intent on harming and harvesting humans are better or worse than human beings--men specifically--who sometimes manipulate and rape women but also sometimes save strangers from drowning or feed needy people. Under the Skin also includes very little dialogue, which contributes both to its unconventional style and gives it a haunting eeriness that lingers well after the film ends. The visual style, music and themes owe a great deal to Stanley Kubrick, but it's no mere pastiche. This is only Jonathan Glazer's third film (Sexy Beast and Birth were his others), and it's another early indication of more great things to come. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

5. Exhibition. This is an unapologetic art film about not art but artists and the artist's life. It follows the ordinary lives of a British artist couple spending their days working and busying themselves as they grasp for inspiration. It mostly follows the wife. Sometimes she lies around the house, sometimes she looks out the window, sometimes she calls her husband rather than walk upstairs and speak to him, oftentimes her husband demeans her in subtle and not so subtle ways, other times she dresses up, and occasionally she creates. I imagine this is probably what life is really like for some artists. Most people will probably find Exhibition boring, but I found it fascinating. Now streaming on Netflix.

6. Snowpiercer. Chris Evans plays the anti-Captain America (read: dark, brooding) in this philosophical action film about a bullet train continuously traveling across the globe due to a global warming crisis. It's a Marxist commentary on the divisions we place among ourselves and the brutal ways in which the privileged exploit the poor. Smart stuff and cool action sequences to boot. And Tilda's Swinton's over-the-top character is pitch perfect for the film. It's directed by the very talented South Korean director Bong joon-ho (Mother, The Host, and Memories of Murder). This is his first English language film. Available on Netflix.

7. Like Father Like Son, Written and directed by one of the great living Japanese directors Hirokazu Koreeda, Like Father Like Son tells the heartbreaking story of two boys switched at birth and their parents' decision whether to exchange the boys they raised for six years once they discover the truth. The parents come from completely different socioeconomic backgrounds--one set is fairly poor and one set very prosperous--and they have very different models of parenting. The film not only asks the broader question of what a parent is but it also challenges the audience to consider their own parenting. I couldn't help ask myself whether I spend enough time with my son and whether I push him too hard--or whether I don't push him hard enough. Available on Netflix.

8. Wild. A former drug addict decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail with very little preparation or planning. In way over her head, she sticks with it and the film becomes a triumphant story of the power of the human spirit. Encountering a mixed bag of people--some frightening and some genuinely friendly--on her way, Cheryl primarily faces the elements and the power of nature. Stylistically, the film is a great achievement. As she hikes the PCT, we are informed of her back story through a series of flashbacks, but what I thought was totally original is that most of the flashbacks are only seconds long. They are literally flashes of memories and operate the way actual memories operate--with brief images rather than the typical fully drawn-out scene with dialogue. It's ultimately a spiritual quest and walking the PCT helps Cheryl find out who she is. And Reese Witherspoon is excellent.

9. Ida. A black and white Polish film set in the early 1960s, Ida follows the life a a young woman about to take her vows as a nun. Raised in an orphanage, she has no knowledge of her family until an aunt shows up out of nowhere and tells her that her parents were Jewish and died during the war. The young nun goes on an odyssey to discover the truth about her family. The cinematography is beautiful, and one detail that stood out to me is that the frame is almost always shot with characters in long shot where the characters are off balance at the very bottom of the screen.  The background landscape or shots of buildings literally dwarf the people in the frame. I wasn't sure exactly what to make of it. Maybe it was a way for the director to comment on the smallness of people, that people are merely objects of causality too often caught in forces beyond their control. Available on Netflix.

10. Only Lovers Left Alive. A revisionist vampire film by director Jim Jarmusch, Lovers tells the tale of two immortals living worlds apart who have lots of time on their hands, time to read poetry, write music, collect guitars, and simply think. It's a slow, meditative film that refuses to conform to the vampire genre conventions. This is one of the most romantic movies I have seen (and by romantic I mean Wordsworth/Coleridge/Blake/Byron/Keats Romantic).

11. The Immigrant. This movie has echoes of Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, but in my mind it surpasses many of the silly elements in Leone's masterpiece. This is great storytelling about the American experience. Available on Netflix.

12. Blue Ruin. The most original revisionist revenge film I have seen is French director Claire Denis's Bastards, but I found that film too unconventional--for my tastes anyway. Blue Ruin is a smart revisionist revenge film that turns many of the conventions on its head but it also doesn't go so far as to alienate the viewer.

Other films that round out my top 24 include NightcrawlerLe Week-End, It Felt Like Love, Coherence, The One I Love, Jodoworsky's Dune, Night Moves, Tim's Vermeer, Venus in Fur, Foxcatcher, Frank, and Gloria.

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