2014 was the year of the performance. Actors, old and young, stacked the last 12 months with more great work than came in the previous twenty-four. Whether the surrounding films were mediocre or ingenious, the talent in front of the camera shimmered in spades. Artists around the world, including two prodigies not yet 30, reached for the stars and never looked back, delivering a hefty number of worthwhile endeavours that stunned the mind and broke the heart.
’71, The Babadook, Boyhood, Court, The Duke of Burgundy, Eden, Girlhood, Inherent Vice, It Follows, The Look of Silence, Love & Mercy, Love is Strange, Mr. Turner, National Gallery, The Overnighters, Seymour: An Introduction, Snowpiercer, Two Days, One Night
Top 10 Films
10. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
“I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.”
In the Venice Golden Lion-winning third part of Roy Andersson’s “Living” trilogy, two travelling salesmen peddling novelty items take the audience on a kaleidoscopic wandering through human destinies. The embellished, stupendously-titled A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a cavalcade of oddness and a master class in comic timing, creating a tension between the banal and the essential to show the dynamic and dialectic nature of existence. Bringing the beguiling and unclassifiable Andersson into the company of Beckett and TS Eliot, this deadpan deadlock capper captures more fully than most films the awful, awesome absurdity of being a human being. Mankind may be heading towards apocalypse, but the outcome is in our hands.
9. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya
7. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
“Only now do I finally remember why I came here.” “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” “Are you a good boy?”
My review of The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, here.
Damian Chazelle’s Sundance sensation comes with a bracingly unfashionable message: it is worth working yourself into an early grave in the pursuit of virtuosity. More than that: it is essential. Whiplash is a smack in the face for an “award for participation” society, where showing up earns a pat on the back. Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, incredible), the conductor of the jazz band at a top conservatoire, is a raging bullhead that doesn’t stand for such bulls**t; he’s an absolutely fantastic creation. Taut as a new snare, Whiplash proceeds at a lick, neither rushing nor dragging. It’s a film of military precision about the quest for it. Anyone in its crosshairs doesn’t stand a chance.
My review of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, here.
4. Force Majeure
“Humiliation must come to an end.” “And now the survivors return and forget.” “I don’t share that interpretation of events.”
My review of Timbuktu, here.
My review of Phoenix, here.
Visually gorgeous, narratively meticulous, and grimly funny, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s drama about a couple coming unraveled during a ski vacation in the French Alps dissects self-perception, gender politics, and sexual dynamics far more incisively than the hyped Gone Girl. With crystalline snowscapes and hushed hotel corridors worthy of Kubrick at his most elegant, Force Majeure offers a witty deconstruction of the myth of the hero. After the husband reflexively flees an approaching avalanche and abandons his family, his wife can’t forgive his cowardice. As he struggles to redeem his manhood, their conflict becomes a ghastly, squirmy parody of a Hemingway story. It’s as if Bergman were resurrected and turned his sly eye toward masculinity.
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Winter Sleep
“There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse…known as humanity.” “Accept things as they are.” “All power comes from God. As long as it suits Him, fear not.”
The imagineering of Wes Anderson reaches tragicomic heights in his fast-paced Lubitsch-style farce about a decaying resort hotel somewhere in the European mountains overseen by its unflappable concierge, M. Gustave. While it’s loaded with hijinks and colourful supporting characters and pushes the Anderson diorama-design aesthetic to new extremes, The Grand Budapest Hotel is wonderfully whimsical, as love and loss, joy and melancholy, chaos and control all mingle and magnify. A light film carrying a heavy heart, if a small step below the marvellous Moonrise Kingdom, this grandiose and hilarious miniature uses the ideas of innocence and artifice as an echo chamber to broach Nabokovian questions about the painful nature of cultural memory.
Dialogue-driven and 196 minutes long, with three characters bickering and moaning amid the craggy mountain landscape of Cappadocia, Winter Sleep sounds like something to be locked away for hardened cinephiles. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer, monumental) is a landlord/hotelier forced to put up or shut up, contending with his own ambitions and the disappointment of his female dependents. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s densely woven fable of marriage, money, religion, and class – even-handed, eye-catching, rich in history and archaeology, steeped in candour, Sartre, and Shakespeare – leaves one feeling suffocated and elated. Each shot glows like a symbol; each digression is a short story unto itself, taking Chekhov as its literary analogue. If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
While writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s previous films have been lauded festival faves, too obscurantist and allegorical for mainstream audiences, Leviathan is a full-blooded crackerjack saga, a spine-tingling social drama of adultery, political intrigue, and family betrayal that fires on all cylinders. Set in northern Russia, the ever rising and falling waves of introduction come to represent its carefully constructed plot manoeuvres, which slowly establish the complexity of each power dynamic at every level, sustaining the tension of motives unspoken building towards multiple dramatic crescendos. Leviathan pulls the viewer into what first appears to be a small legal matter, and then becomes nothing less than the absolute corruption of bureaucratic and clerical power.
A & S Year-End Awards
Picture: Alexander Rodnyansky, “Leviathan” (runner-up: Zeynep Özbatur Atakan and Sezgi Üstün, “Winter Sleep”)
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev, “Leviathan” (runner-up: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, “Winter Sleep”)
Actor: Ralph Fiennes, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (runner-up: Haluk Bilginer, “Winter Sleep”)
Actress: Nina Hoss, “Phoenix” (runner-up: Sheila Vand, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”)
Supporting Actor: JK Simmons, “Whiplash” (runner-up: Ronald Zehrfeld, “Phoenix”)
Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood” (runner-up: Tilda Swinton, “Snowpiercer” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
Original Screenplay: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, “Winter Sleep” (runners-up: Andrey Zvyagintsev, “Leviathan”; Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
Adapted Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice” (runner-up: Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash”)
Editing: Tom Cross, “Whiplash” (runner-up: Sandra Adair, “Boyhood”)
Cinematography: Gökhan Tiryaki, “Winter Sleep” (runner-up: Lyle Vincent, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”)
Score or Soundtrack: Philip Glass, “Leviathan” (runners-up: Alexandre Desplat, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”; Ola Fløttum, “Force Majeure”)
Foreign Language Film: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, “Winter Sleep” (runners-up: Ruben Östlund, “Force Majeure”; Christian Petzold, “Phoenix”)
Documentary: Jesse Moss, “The Overnighters” (runner-up: Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Look of Silence”)
Most Promising Filmmaker: Ana Lily Amirpour, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (runner-up: Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash”)
Breakout Performance: Katherine Waterston, “Inherent Vice” (runner-up: Ellar Coltrane, “Boyhood”)
Spotlight Award: Alison Pill, “Snowpiercer” (runner-up: Marisa Tomei, “Love is Strange”)
2015 Most Anticipated
On paper, 2015 is a ridiculously promising year. Terrence Malick returns with the always-in-post-production “Knight of Cups.” Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” and Martin Scorsese’s long-overdue passion project “Silence” are also on the docket. Justin Kurzel (“The Snowtown Murders”) brings an adaptation of Macbeth to the screen, and Alejandro González Iñárritu and Richard Linklater follow up their 2014 successes with “The Revenant” and “That’s What I’m Talking About.”
Sundance looks to be spectacular: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are releasing their second collaboration “Mistress America”; Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”) and Ryan Fleck/Anna Boden (“Half Nelson”) have well-cast dramedies; and Craig Zobel (“Compliance”) has landed Margot Robbie for his bigger budget sci-fi indie “Z for Zachariah.”