The Best First Features of 2014


‘The Strange Little Cat’

[For more of our “Fifty Days, Fifty Lists,” see “Why Lists?” here on Keyframe.]

In my recent article and video on Josephine Decker, I included the debut director’s work in a makeshift roll call of remarkable first-time features I saw this year. This drew requests for a fully fleshed-out list, which can now be found here both in video and text. This has been a remarkable year for breakout filmmakers—I count no less than twenty-two debut features that really impressed me, and three that are in serious contention for spots on my end of year top ten.

10. Obvious Child (dir. Gillian Robespierre)
Robespierre’s breakthrough hit garnered praise for both its open account of a woman’s right to choose and its unapologetically comic handling of such sensitive material. But I find its most laudable breakthrough in the full-bodied presentation of a female lead who’s allowed to be a shambling wreck, countering in a mainstream culture where shlubbiness has long been claimed exclusively by the Apatow-Rogen man-child template, with women serving as their idealized, nurturing enablers. Obvious Child boldly flips the script, at times confronting the audience with the extent of its lead’s insecurities and self-sabotaging tendencies. While lesser actors would be lost in a sea of quirks, Jenny Slate consistently integrating her character’s idiosyncrasies into a complex portrait of twentysomething maturation.

9. It Felt Like Love (dir. Eliza Hittman)
Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood ranks as one of the most impressive uses of time as a filmmaking tool, spending over a decade watching its young protagonist find his way through adolescence. Still, I can’t help but find its breadth more impressive than its depth; while layers of resonance accumulate over years, it is less successful in delving fully into the standalone moments of extreme trauma and confusion that mark adolescent memory. Such moments can be found in Hittman’s debut feature, which fully embraces the swirling languor of a girl’s sexual awakening. And like Obvious Child, it challenges the protective impulses of patriarchal viewership, acknowledging the kind of agency that can be drawn from female vulnerability, and that can turn that vulnerability into its own form of strength.

8. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez)
Earlier this year I expressed my appreciation of this subtle-but-bold experimental documentary the best way I could: by remixing it into a multi-layer mashup of its memorable shots.

7. Fish & Cat (Shahram Mokri)
I wrote in my coverage of the Seattle International Film Festival for “This bold debut feature by Iranian director Shahram Mokri unfolds in a single take that lasts over 130 minutes long, winding its way through a forest where locals prey on young campers from the city and turn them into meat. This may sound like a no budget horror material, but Mokri takes both his story and his camera through a series of unexpected twists and turns. The film passes through a series of phases and moods, from youth romance to murder mystery to full-on art film, as the camera loops through the woods only to end up where it was a moment ago, and a scene starts over again but with an entirely different perspective. This is truly ambitious filmmaking, a head-scratcher in a way that is riveting and refreshing.”

(UPDATE: Informed readers have pointed out that Mokri had previously directed a feature in 2009, Ashkan. That technically disqualifies Fish & Cat from this list; however this audacious feature is still well worth seeking out.)

6. Butter on the Latch (Josephine Decker)
Written about previously here, which led to a three-way Twitter debate between myself, New Yorker film critic Richard Brody and filmmaker-critic Dan Sallitt. Brody questioned my assertion that Decker seeks to reject filmmaking conventions; he counter-asserted that to appreciate wholly original new visions like Decker’s, one needs to stop “assuming what movies should be and how they should be watched,” and simply watch them. Sallitt wondered if that was even possible. The question remains: what does it take to truly appreciate something “new”? How much does pure intuitive response come into play versus a well-informed knowledge of the conventions established by other films and filmmakers?  How do these two modes work together, and under what conditions do they become irreconcilable? If those questions are too ponderous, well then, enjoy this eye candy instead:

5. In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross)
Each in their own way, Obvious Child, It Felt Like Love and Butter on the Latch ambitiously chart out new territory in telling stories of young women in their own terms. What sets In Bloom apart is its scale: it tells the story of the newly minted nation of Georgia’s turbulent,post-Soviet adolescence through a teenage girl’s rites of passage, an evocative mirroring of the personal and the national. The filmmakers make resourceful use of lively ensemble stagings and fluid long takes to give their modestly-sized production an epic sweep and energy, centered on a class of vivacious free-roaming girls who embody all the promise of Georgia’s newly earned independence, one that quickly spirals into tragic fractiousness and violence.

4. History of Fear (Benjamin Naishtat)
From my Seattle International Film Festival coverage for “Even more unsettling than Mokri’s debut, the first film by Argentinian writer-director Benjamin Naishtat also delves into dark spaces of insecurity and domestic predation, this time situated around a gated community in Buenos Aires, where strange things are happening around a well-to-do family. Working in creepy domestic spaces akin to the work of Luis Bunuel, Michael Haneke, and Brazil’s Kleber Mendonca Filho (director of 2012’s outstanding Neighboring Sounds), the film is never clear in its story but still potent in capturing moments with dreamlike vividness: a young man lying down in the middle of a fast food restaurant; mud hitting the windshield of a policeman’s car; lights mysteriously coming on in a darkened country club. If you don’t mind coming out of it with no real answers as to what’s really going on, but awed at having your brain worked over with darkly sensuous atmospheric filmmaking, seek this out.”

3. Policeman (Nadav Lapid)
One of my proudest moments when I was editor of this site was when I ran this deep profile on one of the hidden gems of the 2011 New York Film Festival, a bold, accomplished film that brilliantly staged a confrontation between Israeli leftist radicals and police counter-terrorism experts. One can speculate as to the reasons it took three years for this film to finally be released in theaters, as well as why it barely made a splash upon doing so. The fact remains that it is a stunningly achieved work that explores the condition of dogmatic factionalism both through body (the macho posturings of the Israeli police unit) and mind (the poetry slam-style declamations of the radicals). Lapid’s newest work The Kindergarten Teacher premiered at Cannes this year, so he isn’t leaving anytime soon; it’s high time the world catches up with him.

2. Dear White People (Justin Simien)
Despite the enthusiasm surrounding the Sundance premiere of Simien’s satire of race relations in an elite university campus, I put off watching it, sensing a gimmicky provocation in race-baiting as suggested by the title. When I finally caught up with it, many things beneath its surface leapt out at me, not the least a number of audiovisual references to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon: from the use of Schubert in the soundtrack to the telescopic zooms in and out of the frame, creating a perpetual instability in the viewer’s spectatorship, which is absolutely relevant to gauging the tumultuous dynamics of identity among the film’s ensemble. These aren’t superficial homages but clear signs of a special subspecies of film geek – one who applies his adopted film legacies not just to produce style but meaning. Combine that with whipsmart, contentious dialogue that can turn the power relations between characters on a dime, while constantly questioning and overturning its characters’ authority, and you have one of the flat-out smartest films of the year, one that deftly navigates its characters’ confusion while never coming off as confused itself.

1. The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zurcher)
At the midway point this year, I had this feature, Zurcher’s film school graduate project, as my top release of 2014, with this video essay making the case. With just weeks to go, do I still consider it the best film of the year? We’ll find out soon enough… one list begets another!

Honorable mentions: Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier); Double Play (Gabe Klinger); A Girl at My Door (July Jung); Hide Your Smiling Faces (Daniel Patrick Carbone); Hotel Nueva Isla (Irene Gutiérrez Javier Labrador); The Japanese Dog (Tudor Cristian Jurgiu); The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra); Next to Her (Asaf Korman); Northern Light (Nick Bentgen); Rich Hill (Tracy Droz Tragos, Andrew Droz Palermo); Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (Josephine Decker); 12 O’Clock Boys (Lofty Nathan).

Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.

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