(UPDATED: See my new number two)
As regular readers know: for me, 2014 has been one of the greatest years in the history of cinema. I have never before awarded more than half as many **** ratings in one year as I did in 2014, and that goes for all the films I have watched (I keep a database). Indeed, I need a minimum of a top fifteen this year because I couldn’t possibly leave any **** films off the list (as I was forced to do for Third Way cafe). I know that at least one other 2014 film (which I may count for 2015, since as far as I know it was not released in Canada in 2014) is almost certainly going to get ****. That film is Mr. Turner, a critically-acclaimed film about my favourite British painter made by my favourite British filmmaker (Mike Leigh). Even with a top fifteen, I regret having to leave ***+ films like Citizenfour, The Lunchbox, The Skeleton Twins and Love is Strange off my list, as they would have made many previous top-ten lists.
It goes without saying that this great year has nothing to do with Hollywood or the box office. Four of the five highest grossing films of 2014 were duds (IMHO) and only one Hollywood film is included in the list below (number 12). So calling 2014 a great year for cinema does not refer to the film industry as a whole. The masses continue to be drawn to inferior films and thus Hollywood continues to churn out inferior films, because all it cares about is the box office. But it is marvellous to see so many independent films of such a high quality being made despite the current emphasis on numbers (while I pay attention to the box office, I am appalled by the way film news is now focused on how much money a film makes on its opening weekend).
Every time I walk into a cinema, I hope for that elusive experience of being so captivated by a film that I will come outside feeling disoriented and thinking: “Wow!”. Some years, I just sigh and hope such experiences may come the next year. In 2014, I experienced the ‘wow’ time and time again. This, my friends, is what film-watching and film-loving is all about.
I should note that those who have seen my top ten list at Third Way Cafe will see a difference in the content and ordering of my lists. I confess that I wrote the Third Way list with its audience in mind and thus left out and rearranged certain films (no change to my top six). The list below is therefore the accurate one (sorry, I am not taking my audience into account this time). So here are my fifteen **** films of 2014, counting down from fifteen: [Observation: note the prevalence of dark films (I count eight), of thought-provoking satires (I count eight) and of films about the meaning of life (again, I count eight) in this list; this no doubt reveals something about me and my taste in films.]
15. Whiplash - I said it wouldn’t make my top ten list (and technically it is not in my top ten), but this was one of the “wow” films of the year and I gave it ****, so a nod to this intense, compelling and extraordinary film about a young man who wants to be a great musician and the man willing to do whatever it takes to help make that happen. Damien Chazelle knows how to end a film (a relatively rare skill) and how to make use of J.K. Simmons’s Oscar-worthy (and, I predict, Oscar-winning) performance.
14. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - Michael Keaton delivers the performance of a lifetime as a once-famous actor trying to do one last meaningful thing with his life by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver play. Featuring astonishing camera work, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film is a thought-provoking satire on celebrity and an exploration of the meaning of life.
13. Nightcrawler - Another Oscar-worthy performance gives us Jake Gyllenhaal as a sociopathic videographer in Dan Gilroy’s scathing indictment of the television news industry. Every awful scene is an intelligent work of art.
12: Interstellar - The only Hollywood film in my top fifteen, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic is one of the wildest rides in the history of film, an audio-visual feast for the senses that engages both our minds and (unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey) our emotions, though its underlying message that we should consider giving up on earth is a dangerous one.
11: The Congress - Ari Folman’s partly animated (gorgeously so) sci-fi film is based on a 1971 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. It stars Robin Wright as Robin Wright, an aging actor who is offered a form of immortality in this sharp satire of the Hollywood film industry, ‘celebrity’, the pharmaceutical industry and individuality/identity.
10: Locke - Tom Hardy is the only actor we see (and he delivers a wonderful nuanced performance) in Steven Knight’s film about a man whose life crumbles around him (despite his efforts to do the right thing) as he talks on the phone during a two-hour drive across southern England.
9. The Zero Theorem - Terry Gilliam’s latest sci-fi masterpiece is, like Brazil, a quirky, funny thought-provoking satire on contemporary society. Christoph Waltz is wonderful as a genius in the near future who is assigned the task of proving there is no meaning to our existence.
8. Ida - This small Polish film by Pawel Pawlikowski, set in 1962 and stunningly filmed in black & white, tells the moving and compelling story (featuring exceptional character development) of a young woman, about to take her vows as a nun, who discovers her Jewish roots and the horrific history of her family during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
7. Under the Skin - This very dark sci-fi film from Jonathan Glazer gives us Scarlett Johansson as an alien in Scotland who preys on vulnerable men only to become the hunted herself. A mesmerizing thought-provoking film about how we look at people and what happens when we see what lies under the skin.
6: Selma - David Oyelowo is perfect as Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in 1965, led the campaign for voting rights for African Americans in the southern U.S. Focusing on a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Ava DuVernay’s film is an inspiring, moving and gripping drama and a powerful depiction of a story everyone needs to see and from which we all have much to learn, even in 2014.
5: The Grand Budapest Hotel - Another of his trademark quirky, intelligent and surreal comedy dramas, this film may be Wes Anderson’s best yet. It’s full of superb acting, clever dialogue, gorgeous cinematography and pointed satire (of authority, governments and attitudes toward immigration).
4: The Great Beauty - This Italian film from Paolo Sorrentino won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013, but was not released in North America until 2014. A breathtakingly beautiful and thought-provoking satire about life in contemporary Rome, The Great Beauty stars Toni Servillo as an aging journalist looking for moments of great beauty in his pointless existence.
3: Only Lovers Left Alive - I’m no fan of vampire films, but Jim Jarmusch’s slow-paced, gorgeously-filmed (at night, in Detroit and Tangier) drama about the lives of a very old vampire couple (played wonderfully by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) provides a profound and unique perspective on the history of human civilization and the dangers we are facing in the 21st century.
2: Boyhood - Richard Linklater almost had my favourite film of the year for two years in a row with this amazing drama which he filmed over a period of twelve years. By allowing us to watch family members naturally grow and change over twelve years, as if we’re viewing a documentary, Linklater (one of the greatest filmmakers of our time) gives us an insightful cinematic masterpiece about everyday life. It’s great to see Linklater finally getting the public recognition he deserves.
1: Calvary - This small Irish film by John Michael McDonagh stars Brendan Gleeson in an Oscar-worthy performance as a small-town priest slowly losing the respect of his parishioners as the church becomes increasingly irrelevant to their lives. While this dark (but often funny) film is not for all tastes, Calvary is a sublime meditation on the future of the church, on violence, on forgiveness and on what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus.