I watched a hell of a lot of movies in 2014. The vast majority of them were (unavoidably, I guess) older rather than recent releases, so I’m splitting my list in two, sprinkling a handful of favorites released in 2014 over another handful of films which, although made in the more distant past, made their impressions on me some kind of just-yesterday. Two hands, ten (or so) movies, one year and many. Blessed is the Hassle and all who read her. Happy new year! Here we go:
1. BOYHOOD DIR. RICHARD LINKLATER
Cinephile-in-Chief Barack Obama’s declaration of BOYHOOD as his favorite film of the year almost makes one want to give him a pass for failing to become the president we all hoped he would. Because come on, nothing and no one ever develops the way we expect it to. In BOYHOOD, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is — at one and the same time, over twelve years and over nearly three hours — both right in front of us and already gone, just like everything else — a non-magic trick, like cinema, lighting up, lighting out, and fading back to black.
2. STRANGER BY THE LAKE DIR. ALAIN GUIRAUDIE
Guiraudie brought home Cannes’ Best Director bauble for this engaging and uncanny exploration of sexuality, friendship, and epistemology set in a gay cruising spot nestled on the edge of a deep dark wood. For melancholy and unconventional mystery (who done it is never in question for the audience), few films came close in 2014.
3. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY DIR. JAMES GUNN
Yeah, well. I’m only embarrassed enough to insist that I’m not embarrassed at all. And why should I be? What we have here is supremely state-of-the-art, eye-popping, corn-popping, pop-cult glory, expertly heart-string-tugging, adrenaline-goosing — even funny. And the soundtrack establishes the character and cross-to-bear of central Guardian Chris Pratt so effectively that its apotheosis in “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” provoked an even giddier rush for me than that song normally produces under just about any circumstances.
4. Three-way tie: THE BABADOOK DIR. JENNIFER KENT/ INTERSTELLAR DIR. CHRISTOPHER NOLAN/ MR. TURNER DIR. MIKE LEIGH
I couldn’t leave any of these out. Jennifer Kent’s sad, sinister fairy-tale confidently conjured its subtle, artful, cumulatively devastating horror to harrowing effect. Nolan, for all his cornball characterizations and metaphysical mystifications, gave us a reliably entertaining, intellectually kind of thrilling (if politically dubious) meditation on time, space, and human connection. And Mike Leigh — or even more, his indispensable star, Timothy Spall — crafted a ravishing, yet determinedly earthbound, depiction of early Victorian England and the artist’s vocation within it, as exemplified by visionary landscapist J.M.W. Turner.
5. HORSE MONEY DIR. PEDRO COSTA
Costa, who shed both light and shadow on the meaning of his oeuvre in his October appearance at the Harvard Film Archive, snagged the Best Director prize at Locarno this year for the fourth installment in what used to be called his Fountainhas Trilogy. Cape Verdean immigrant Ventura reprises his role as a kind of Orpheus lost in an underworld at once literal (Fountainhas is a slum of Lisbon), personal (he’s haunted by Portugal’s half-finished revolution of the 1970s) and phantasmagorical (thar be ghosts here).
Cinema Ye Somewhat Older:
1. MEDEA (1988) DIR. LARS VON TRIER
A film of extraordinary power and pathos, MEDEA is both a worthy homage to Danish cinema’s most legendary master, Dreyer, and a key document — possibly a skeleton key — for the understanding of much of von Trier’s subsequent work, with special attention to BREAKING THE WAVES (1996), DANCER IN THE DARK (2000) , and ANTICHRIST (2009). But MEDEA’s brooding atmosphere — all bristle, shudder and thrum — is its own minor, murderous miracle.
2. FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969) DIR. TOSHIO MATSUMOTO
Civilization and democracy just aren’t sexy, at least not compared to Matsumoto’s apocalyptic cartoon of Tokyo’s polymorphously perverse late Sixties underground. Come for the crawling, seething, teeming and writhing — from the actors, sure, but even more in the editing — but stick around for some surprisingly affecting Oedipal heartbreak (and eyebleed).
3. A SAFE PLACE (1971) DIR. HENRY JAGLOM
No, this ain’t the weak link in Criterion’s BBS collection: that spot’s reserved for Nicholson’s listless DRIVE, HE SAID (1971). Welles’ turn here as a mysterious, mostly mute keeper of childhood’s half-remembered magics is a little ridiculous, sure, but who cares? It also works, if you let it. Jaglom’s best film is a stoned soul requiem for a damaged, beautiful, unbalanced girl and the men who would rescue or exploit her.
4. THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924) DIR. ROBERT WIENE
Those hands of Orlac, sure, they’re really something; but the eyes of Alexandra Sorina! My God. A tour de force of trembling — in passion, in terror, in deep and cutting chiaroscuro. Hers is a gaze that earns your surrender; before delivering you over, of course, to those murderous hands. A lesser-known masterpiece by the maker of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920).
5. GARAGE (2007) DIR. LENNY ABRAHAMSON
Working through Abrahamson’s output in advance of the release of FRANK last May, I wondered how the hell I’d managed to miss him for so long. GARAGE, like ADAM & PAUL (2004) before it, evinces its director’s central concern with befuddled, not quite outcast, but not too terribly bright characters muddling along on the fringes of Irish society. Josie, GARAGE’s sweet, permanently confused protagonist, is almost a Bressonian saint.