By the time you read this, you and I and everyone else will be focusing with laser-like intensity on the few, those lucky few, that have managed to survive the first stages of the campaign for Oscar glory, at the expense of all the rest of the films and filmmakers of 2014 that were worthy, deserving, and often more deserving of the sort of glory that will be showered on the nominees like a gold-flaked fake tan. Which is not to say that some likely Oscar favorites—Boyhood, Birdman, Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel among them—don’t deserve the accolades. But there were a lot of other movies that will scarcely be mentioned from this day forward that also warrant our attention. So while Hollywood and the ravenous 24/7 press machine raise their glasses to those with the best, most relentless press agents or with Harvey Weinstein as patron saint, let me be so bold as to salute my own baker’s dozen favorites from the year just passed (delivered by my favorite movie baker, Enzo Aguello, seen above), with a bonus morsel and a another full basket of delights tossed in for good measure, before they all sail away, forever disinvited from the annual post-Oscar Governor’s Ball. These were the movies that made me the happiest to be hungry for the movies in 2014.First, the appetizer, then the feast, in ascending order:
13.5) FEAST (Patrick Osborne)
“By the time this little dollop of a movie works its way through to its conclusion, any possible objections to sameness in the usual Disney affirmation of family values have been eroded by the sheer joy of the movie’s effortless invention and discipline, and then washed away in a flood of tears.”
13) WHIPLASH (Damien Chazelle)A movie that rumbles with the cacophonic fury of a Buddy Rich solo and a sly, rhythmic certainty in the probing of ambiguous depths of character that is all its own. Miles Teller’s student drummer and J.K. Simmons’ martinet music teacher give no quarter in this clash of creative realization and outrageous emotional manipulation. Hearts are hardened, souls are compromised and limits are pushed, to say nothing of the knuckle meat sacrificed to the dark beat of writer/director Chazelle’s unsettling emotional thriller. Above all, it has a soundtrack that soars.
12) ALTMAN (Ron Mann)In remembering a filmmaker who lived life imperfectly, uproarious, generously, who then channeled those impulses into an astonishing career in which the failures were as fascinating as the many triumphs, Mann’s documentary reminds us not of cinematic glories that will be with us till all the lights go out, but also of what we’ve lost over the course of the 45 years of popular film culture since Altman’s free-spirited style briefly reigned, asserted its influence and then gave way to the sameness of the blockbuster era.
11) MILIUS (Joey Figueroa, Zak Knutson)
An examination and a tribute worthy of the knotty, exhilarating, maddening, supremely confident and impishly provocative auteur at its center which, in addition to celebrating the expected bravado, surfs surprising waves of feeling as well. Milius himself might scoff (while secretly appreciating it, of course), but the empathy this documentary generates for his boisterous voice, at its topmost volume and in its virtual silencing, is both remarkable and revealing.
10) BIRDMAN (or THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (Alejandro G. Innaritu)
On one level it’s hard not to take this ebulliently confident tour de force as a direct response to the critics of Innaritu’s previous films, in particular their jittery, self-serious style which sacrificed memorable imagery and visual coherence at the altar of facile immediacy. But it’s also a blackly funny backstage satire which skewers the insecurity and hubris of actors and show business while simultaneously reveling in their glories. As it glides through the halls and up the stairs of a theatrical space constructed to reflect the mental echo chambers of a creative force skirting the edge of the final drop-off, Birdman proves taut and moving, a relentless snare pattern resounding like madness, reverberating like the thrill of performance, laughing and shuddering while the constructed inner and outer worlds crumble.
9) VIRUNGA (Orlando von Einsiedel)A documentary with all the urgency of great investigative journalism and the razor-sharp instincts of a well-told thriller. Virunga showcases a devastating polarity of human nature in its portrait of the venal and violently destructive battle for oil lands in the Congo and the heroic attempts of a group of park rangers to facilitate the conservation of the land and the survival of its native population of mountain gorillas. It leaves you breathless with outrage, but also with hope generated by the sacrifice of the rangers and the power of moral clarity.
8) THE BABADOOK (Jennifer Kent)
This may not precisely be the most terrifying movie ever made, as broadcast by director William Friedkin, but it’s well scary enough to at least live up to the spirit of the hype, especially when considering this debut feature by writer-director Kent, an ostensibly supernatural tale which eventually drifts closer to a maternal riff on Repulsion, has the confidence and stylistic purpose of a seasoned artist of psychological horror. It’s anchored by Essie Davis’s spectacular turn as a mother whose post-partum trauma has eroded her patience and even love for her own son, who fries his mother’s last nerves in insisting the monster from a mysterious children’s book is somehow real. Profoundly unsettling, and not particularly pleasant—I had to fight the urge to bolt for the exits on a couple of occasions.
7) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (Jim Jarmusch)Most hipsters act like they’ve seen it all, but Jarmusch’s ageless hipster vampires really have. It’s the director’s brilliant conceit that they should be consumers not only of blood but also of culture, great predator-participants in the most sublime and earth-shaking of creative endeavors throughout history, whose sense of romance, of deathless cool, is giving way to a seductive alienation that may be too much even for the undead to oppose. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, the most sympathetic connoisseur-snob bloodsuckers imaginable; their modern-day lair, a fabulously cluttered batcave of analog rock-era detritus; and the philosophical swoon they take through the empty streets of Detroit in search of spiritual and sensory sustenance-- they are all similarly irresistible.
6) SELMA (Ava DuVernay)
History made palpable, accessible, by its unfortunate reflection of modern evidence that the strides made in the Civil Rights Movement it so vividly depicts may not have taken us as far as we once thought, but also by the striking empathy commanded by the filmmaker for the real work required to channel and execute effective resistance. Visually powerful without an excess of directorial ostentation, DuVernay crystallizes the events leading to the march on Montgomery to speak to the desperate now in painting a portrait, embodied by David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, of a dynamic, recognizably flawed human being whose perhaps most important achievement may have been in timely reflection as well as thoughtful action. Selma fairly vibrates with historical resonance and immediacy.
5) MR. TURNER (Mike Leigh)Timothy Spall’s gruntingly eloquent, nearly subverbal performance as the indisputably great British painter J.M.W. Turner may be the year’s greatest, and it may also be (New York Film Critics Circle excepted) the year’s most egregiously ignored. Awards or no, Spall, in concert with Leigh and the masterful cinematographer Dick Pope, paints a Cinemascope picture of an artist worthy of the aesthetic and temperamental flux that characterized the end of his career. The filmmakers don’t try to ape the realist’s lean toward impressionism of Turner’s late work, nor does Spall labor to spell out thin explanations for his obsessions in actorly language. Instead, these modern artists strive for and achieve a tactile quality of everyday light and landscape to suggest how the British painter perceives the world around him, while honoring with their own craft the mystery of how those perceptions were transformed into Turner’s art. This is surely among Mike Leigh’s best films.
4) THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL (Chapman Way, Maclain Way)“Most of the guys had a little paunch,” says Rob Nelson, pitching coach of the Portland Mavericks independent professional baseball club. “They led the league in stubble.” So does this marvelous, energetic, irreverent documentary, a perfect capsulizing of the Maverick’s raucous legacy of unprecedented success. The Ways pay tribute to actor turned baseball impresario Bing Russell (father of actor Kurt Russell, who briefly played for the team) and the enthusiastic, against-the-grain spirit he instilled in his players, which the city of Portland responded to in kind. In the process, they’ve made a movie that speaks to the true fan of the game, to the real love of the game, one of the great movies about baseball.
3) MANAKAMANA (Stephanie Spray, Pancho Velez)The closest thing to being hypnotized, in a purely positive, enlivening sense, I’ve ever experienced at the hands of a movie, one in which the shift of a gaze, or a sigh, or an unexpected movement or sound, can feel like an earthquake. This incredible film, composed of a series of simple 10-minute shots observing human faces as they survey a beautiful Nepalese mountainside forest from a swaying cable car on its way to the temple of the movie's titular goddess, sucked me into its unblinking gaze. Each trip with a new set of passengers offers an opportunity to see and feel and think about the world differently, as well as reflect on the power of the moving image to convey so much by so apparently minor means. Beautiful and transcendent.
And an equivocation at the top of the list, because I just can’t choose between the two movies of the year which most captivated me:
1) BOYHOOD (Richard Linklater)From my review, posted August 18, 2014: “The film marks the passage of time in the faces of its actors, of course, but also through the way it indicates, without a jarring jump-cut sensibility, how Olivia (Patricia Arquette) extricates herself from the influence of her abusive, alcoholic husbands (the second one entirely off-screen); how the landscape of her countenance, changing in its way right along with her son’s, illustrates her deepening concern and love; by the telling presence of technology, of how Game Boy screens and televisions morph into computers and smartphones and, of course, the unseen grid of social media; of the political landscape of Texas after the turn of the century; and by the deft massaging of all these elements into scenes that don’t seem edited as much as molded together… Linklater lets the movie sprawl and find its own shape outside of prescribed methods of editing, how he allows it to trickle through the timeline and make room for the sorts of detail that would get sifted out of a more strictly and traditionally dramatic approach. Nothing much beyond the course of everyday experience happens in Boyhood—the movie has also been criticized in some quarters for not being dramatic enough, for being a too generalized portraiture of growing up. Yet the movie captures with alarming sensitivity the way youth, and the way people move through youth toward maturity, makes each decision seem momentous, important, far-reaching, when precisely the opposite may be true. Is Boyhood the greatest movie ever made, an enduring masterpiece? Who knows? Its sublime poetry, its generosity, its empathy, its curiosity, its window onto the true fleetingness and intangibility of time, these are the qualities that actually mean something. Boyhood is extraordinary right now. When we're older and grayer and ostensibly wiser, there will still be plenty of time to discuss matters of greatness."
1) UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer )
Its title evokes ripples of unnerving intimacy, frissons of fear, and a construction of alien intelligence, perspective and detachment hidden in the guise of seductive earthly beauty, personified by Scarlett Johansson's spectrally gorgeous, eerily vacant countenance. Jonathan Glazer's science fiction dreamscape is perhaps the most powerful visual movie experience of the new century so far, its vision and command of technique stretching from absolute modernity to the dawning age of cinematic imagery. It begins with an act of interstellar birth, preverbal linguistic formations coursing almost subliminally on the soundtrack, and ends elementally, in fire and under the calming descent of snow, its gaze pointedly pleadingly back in the direction from whence it started. Between these points Under the Skin fashions an alluring near-perfect expression of the elusive, mysterious task of defining humanity, as well as chilling glimpses into the secret methodology of observation and harvesting of that humanity which leads to destruction and, perhaps, transcendence. Nearly a decade after his magnificent and haunting feature Birth (2004), Glazer here intertwines a singularly menacing and surreal atmosphere with an even stranger, more pure realism, and the feature that results places him on a short list among the most startling and original filmmakers working today.
THE APPRENTICE BAKER’S DOZEN (in descending order)
14) THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Wes Anderson)
15) LOCKE (Steven Knight)
16) GODZILLA (Gareth Edwards)
17) A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (Scott Frank)
18) JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE (John Ridley)
19) THE HOMESMAN (Tommy Lee Jones)
20) LUCY (Luc Besson)
21) GOD’S POCKET (John Slattery)
22) THE UNKNOWN KNOWN (Errol Morris)
23) CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)
24) STRANGER BY THE LAKE (Alain Guiraudie)
25) THE INTERVIEW (Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg)
26) BAD WORDS (Jason Bateman)
STILL NEED TO SEE: American Sniper, Beyond the Lights, Beyond Outrage, Big Bad Wolves, The Boxtrolls, CitizenFour, Citizen Koch, The Dance of Reality, Dear White People, Fading Gigolo, The Fault In Our Stars, A Field in England, Finding Vivian Maier, For No Good Reason, Force Majeure, Foxcatcher, Fury, Get On Up, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Goodbye to Language, The Green Inferno, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Imitation Game, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, Into the Woods, Joe, Journey to the West, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, The Monuments Men, Night Moves, Nymphomaniac Vol. 2, Obvious Child, Palo Alto, Particle Fever, The Penguins of Madagascar, The Raid 2, Rigor Mortis, Rosewater, The Sacrament, The Story of Princess Kaguya, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Third Person, Three Days to Kill, 22 Jump Street, Whitey: United States of America v. James Bulger, Wild, The Wind Rises, Witching and Bitching.
ACADEMY OF THE UNDERRATED
At the Devil’s Door, God’s Pocket, The Interview, Land Ho!, Lucy, Magic in the Moonlight, Ouija, Veronica Mars, Venus in Fur, A Walk Among the Tombstones
ACADEMY OF THE OVERRATED
Big Eyes, Blue Ruin, Calvary, Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ida, Inherent Vice, Interstellar, Jodorowsky’s Dune, John Wick, Nightcrawler, Snowpiercer
Essie Davis (The Babadook), Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Hilary Swank (The Homesman)
Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner), Tom Hardy (Locke), Michael Keaton Birdman), David Oyelowo (Selma), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Emma Stone (Birdman), Imogen Poots (Jimi: All is Buy My Side), Carmen Ejogo (Selma), Marion Bailey (Mr. Turner)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Randall Park (The Interview), Joaquin Phoenix (The Immigrant)
Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin), Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner), Ava DuVernay (Selma), Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive)
Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner), Paul Webb (Selma), Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Alejandro G. Innaritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo (Birdman)
Daniel Landin (Under the Skin), Dick Pope (Mr. Turner), Emmanuel Lubiezki (Birdman), Darius Khondji (Magic in the Moonlight), Yorick Le Saux (Only Lovers Left Alive)
BEST FILM EDITING
Sandra Adair (Boyhood), Chapman Way (The Battered Bastards of Baseball), Spencer Averick (Selma), Simon Njoo (The Babadook), Justine Wright (Locke)
BREAD BOX CRUMBS: THE WORST OF 2014 (in descending order)
10) Before I Go to Sleep (Rowan Joffe)
9) Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
8) Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
7) 300: Rise of an Empire (Noam Murro)
6) The Bag Man (David Grovic)
5) Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
4) A Million Ways to Die in the West (Seth Macfarlane)
3) Tusk (Kevin Smith)
2) Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (Lars von Trier)
1) Left Behind (Vic Armstrong)