Gaza, Ebola, ISIS, Ukraine—it was a truly horrible year out there in the real world. Here in the buffer zone of cinephilia, we did what we could, I suppose, drawing parallels between, say, Selma and Ferguson, writing up lists of movies related to the crisis of the day and tweeting our rage on the way to the next screening. And then, just in time for the holidays, a dick-joke comedy punched a hole in the wall. There was a remote chance for a few days there—ridiculously remote, to be sure, but an outside chance nonetheless—that you could be putting your life in danger by taking a stand for the First Amendment with the purchase of a ticket at a good old-fashioned brick-and-mortar movie theater. The sheer comic absurdity—that The Interview could rekindle a decades-old international conflict and herald a new phase in cyberwarfare (which, of course, has been raging for years but has now gone public)—was an appropriately strange coda to an odd year.
Odd in many good ways, I’d argue. No one declared an end to film culture. Manifestos were anthologized rather than issued. There were, to my knowledge, no new “isms” being debated and no particular national cinema being hailed as the next new wave. The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real series in April did draw focus on the ongoing blurring of the lines in some corners between fiction and nonfiction, but the program sparked more appreciation than debate. True, Robert Greene, whose Actress I look forward to catching next week, has gently warned against hyping “hybrid” cinema up to genre status to the point that its elements become “codified,” but I’m guessing we won’t have much problem keeping the hype contained.
On a related note, though, when Sight & Sound published the results of its “Greatest Documentaries of All Time” poll in August, there was some discussion as to whether Dziga Vertov‘s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is actually a documentary. Most agree that it’s an essay film—not to be confused, of course, with the audiovisual essay, more commonly referred to as the video essay. And I’m in full agreement with Kevin B. Lee here: 2014 is the year that the video essay has come into its own as a viable and boundlessly promising form of film criticism.
Still, all in all, if there was any heat in the chat of 2014, it wasn’t to be found on the aesthetic front. The liveliest threads were about money. As Ted Hope reminds us, the anxiety and dread over the rapidly changing economics of filmmaking began as early as January when the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis warned that there are simply too many films out there: “Dumping ‘product’ into theaters week after week damages an already fragile cinematic ecosystem.” Debate ensued; let’s see what happens at Sundance next month.
By the end of 2014, there seems to be widespread general agreement that the mid-budget film is as endangered as America’s middle class. The implications are many. For one thing, there’s a migration of the likes of Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Jane Campion and, rather thrillingly, David Lynch to television. Myself, I’m neither proud nor ashamed to admit that, for the first time since I got my driving license at the age of 16, I’m sure I’ve watched more hours of television this year than movies (FWIW, my favorite show is Veep and I’m just nuts about The Americans). Not to endorse the notion that television is now “better” than cinema, of course. That’s just how the year played out.
The other implications have to do with the future of the industry’s rough equivalents of the 1% and 99%. This year’s Cassandra is Mark Harris, who’s argued at Grantland that franchises are no longer “the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period.” We’ve got nothing but comic book movies to look forward to for the next umpteen years. Even if that’s true, would it matter? I tend to side with the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody: “Movies are wilder, more daring, more original than ever.” Whether or not you agree with his claim that the “studios are unchained,” it’s hard to argue with the assertion that “those who work on extremely low budgets make movies, such as An Oversimplification of Her Beauty and Butter on the Latch, of an astonishing, surpassing audacity and originality.”
Which brings me, finally, to the idea of 2014 as an oddity and why that’s a good thing. Economic conditions aside, the relatively low level of argumentation over aesthetics clears the way for filmmakers to create and for audiences to receive films free of associations with any particular movement or school.
Before settling on my own top ten (below), I toyed with the idea of flipping the usual format. That is, instead of a ranked top five or ten or twenty followed by unranked honorable mentions, I’d take the top three out of the running and start the ranking at #4. Not because Adieu au langage, Boyhood and Citizenfour—the ABC of 2014, if you don’t mind my being cute about it—are light years ahead of the rest by whatever measures we use to create these lists in the first place. But because each is sui generis; I simply didn’t want to set any of the three of them next to any of the other films on the list. Apples and oranges, or rather, three entirely new and exotic fruits with a respectably sized basket of juicy oranges on the side. Ultimately, I decided that that’d be overstating the case, but the point here is this: The current instability—economic and aesthetic—may well be leading to movies that are indeed “wilder, more daring, more original than ever.”
We can’t wrap a review of the year without tallying our losses. In February, you could practically feel the collective gut-punch as news broke that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died as the result of what we must hope and believe was an accidental overdose. Then the bewilderment in August as we learned that Robin Williams‘s death was not an accident. We lost lifelines to the classic Hollywood era: Lauren Bacall, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple Black, Eli Wallach. We lost some great faces: Bob Hoskins, Ruby Dee, James Garner.
With You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012) and the sly grin of this year’s Life of Riley, Alain Resnais had prepared us for his passing in March. Harun Farocki and Michael Glawogger did not. Robert Gardner, Miklós Jancsó, Věra Chytilová, Peter von Bagh, Mike Nichols, Paul Mazursky, Richard Attenborough, Harold Ramis, Gordon Willis, Robert Drew… The list goes on, cruelly.
But we also spent 2014 celebrating the work of both the living and the dead: Chris Marker, Tati, Fassbinder, Scorsese, Pasolini, Hou Hsiao-hsian, Kenji Mizoguchi, John Waters, Lav Diaz and the return of Spike Lee. It was another big year for Orson Welles, too—and 2015 will be even bigger as we throw year-long party marking his centennial.
2014 TOP TEN
The usual disclaimers apply, but this year, especially this one: I have yet to catch up with many, many films that might have been contenders here.
1. Richard Linkater‘s Boyhood. As so many have emphasized, if this 12-years-in-the-making project were riding on its formal ingenuity alone, it couldn’t have dominated the cultural conversation from its Sundance premiere all the way into awards season. As I collected reviews all year long, the one word that kept leaping out at me is “cumulative”—with regard to its emotional impact. Many of us still haven’t fully scoped out just what it is that makes the experience of watching Boyhood so memorably effective, but it surely has something to do with Linklater being—here, in the Before trilogy and in several of his other films as well—sort of the Fernand Braudel of cinema: History is made in the moments between the obvious signposts.
2. Jean-Luc Godard‘s Goodbye to Language. As alive with ideas and innovation as the film is, I can’t help but sense (and fair warning here: I’ve floated this idea in conversation only to see it shot down with vigor, but onward I dumbly tread) that Godard is—in his own way, of course, and very different from Resnais’s—preparing for an end. In the late 70s, certain circles were taken with a loopy book by the psychologist Julian Jaynes called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Now, for all the really-out-there arguments made in that tome, one notion vaguely derived from it forged on. Again, in certain circles. And that would be that human consciousness and language evolved in tandem. Perhaps, after the audial and visual cacophony of words, there will be the serenity of Roxy’s state of being. All that aside, though, Adieu strikes me (and others) as a far less angry work than 2010’s Film socialisme and no other film this year, 3D or 2D, looked so much like the future.
No film so boldly X-rays certain crucial changes wrought upon the world, and especially America and its government, by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. No film so demands to be seen by every sentient person who values his or her own freedom and privacy. No film so clearly implies actions that need to be taken to prevent the 21st century from turning into an Orwellian nightmare in which technologically-enabled tyranny is absolute and true political liberty, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent.
This is not to say that Citizenfour is a perfect film, if anyone believes that such a thing exists. On the contrary, perhaps more than any documentary in history, it invites endless questions about what Poitras chose to put in and leave out, to emphasize and to elide. But such debates are only a secondary–if very fascinating–aspect of a broader national and international discussion that the film deserves to start. They do nothing to diminish its colossal importance.
4. Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s Winter Sleep. As I watched and listened to Aydin, the former actor putting off writing his magnum opus on the history of Turkish theater while running a hotel in Anatolia, and his recently divorced sister, Necla, begin needling each other, inching their way, prick by prick, toward an argument that never pops fully out into the open, I realized that Winter Sleep was turning into more than another of Ceylan’s gorgeously shot portraits of his country. It’s an extraordinarily meticulous feat of screenwriting as well. I should add here that Andrey Zvyagintsev‘s Leviathan, another homeland temperature-taking microcosmos, seen the night before, suffered, perhaps unfairly, by close comparison.
5. Christian Petzold‘s Phoenix. For a good long while during the first viewing of the latest from one of my favorite filmmakers, something seemed off. But then Nelly (Nina Hoss, superb once again) spells out her motivation—probably far too literally for many, but for me, this is the moment it all falls into place. The drive to survive, intensified and focused to a diamond point in the depths of the most severe crises, will blind both her and her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, nicely understated), in their relentless drives toward their respective goals. One of them will snap out of it; the other won’t until it’s too late.
6. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. It could be argued that this is a fourth film warranting sui generis exemption, but I’m not quite as convinced that it’ll have the longevity of the top three. Nonetheless, it’s the strongest entry in Scarlett Johansson’s remarkable “What It Means to Be Human” trilogy.
7. Wes Anderson‘s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Boy, was I wrong about this one the first time around. Far more than “a lark” and more, too, than a delightful parade of characters and costumes and sets and set-ups. How deeply the melancholy resonates between the laughs. During my second viewing, that is; I can be slow that way.
8. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. There’s more than one way to sidestep those obvious signposts mentioned up there regarding Boyhood. The world of Britain’s painter of light is all there right from the first shot of the sun, but then Leigh and the outstanding Timothy Spall open doors to adjacent rooms, fully furnished with fleshed-out characters. It’s been a long while since I was so convincingly transported to another century.
9. Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West. Posting the trailer for Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968) yesterday, I saw this subtitle pop up: “Our only research subject is time.” That’s a line that might have been spoken in any of the films on this list, but on one level at least, and for all its compositional beauty, this sixth entry in Tsai’s Walker series researches juxtaposed paces.
10. Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters. The Enlightenment on the cusp of full-blown Romanticism, the full vocabulary of cinema applied to an ode to passions communicated by applying pen to paper, a heralding of an ideal eventually proven ungraspable. In three versions: one for festivals, one for theaters, one for television. How very 2014.
Honorable mentions. This Cronenberg fan—and a fan especially of late Cronenberg—still can’t figure out how to read Maps to the Stars. If this year’s list ran beyond ten, Kelly Reichardt‘s Night Moves would eventually make a showing.
James Gray didn’t exactly win me over with We Own the Night (2007) but I fell hard for Two Lovers (2008). The Immigrant? I still need to catch up with that second viewing that Adam Cook’s convinced me I need. I’m glad to have seen Gabe Klinger‘s Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater twice, though, all the better to appreciate the underlying design.
In February, I was a little ticked at Yi’nan Diao for taking the Golden Bear for Black Coal, Thin Ice when Boyhood and Life of Riley had also screened in the Berlinale’s Competition. But I’m over it. Other favorites from all those months ago: Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game, Guillaume Nicloux’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, Josephine Decker‘s Butter on the Latch and David and Nathan Zellner‘s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.