Now that the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared, it's finally time to cast my stone into the bottomless pool that is Best-Of Movie Lists on the Internet. Oh boy.
Though I've been steadily watching more and more movies with each passing year, last year I only had about half a year to work with since I was abroad from January–May. Still, my European adventure provided me with two extremely memorable theater experiences—and both of the films in question made my top 10 cut this year. I only got to see 24 new releases between January 1, 2014 and January 31, 2015 (my arbitrary cutoff day, so chosen to give me the chance to see movies that opened in NYC and LA in 2014 before they came to theaters in my neck of the woods), but it was an impressive batch nonetheless.
I've already written about the perplexing state of film criticism nowadays, and I make no claims to be the definitive authority on what constitutes a masterpiece or not (though I could make pretty compelling arguments about which films are disasters). As with any Top 10 list, my choices are almost entirely subjective and reflect my own tastes and values more than anything else. Since I do take a particular interest in the way movies are made though, and since my budget and schedule necessitate that I be highly selective about what films I choose to see in theaters, I do believe my choices reflect the best of what filmmaking and filmmakers in 2014 had to offer.
So without further ado, I present to you The Best Films of 2014 (according to Tim Markatos, and based on a marginal sample of everything that was actually made and/or theatrically released in the year 2014):
Honorable Mention: Inherent Vice
Given how little I liked PTA's last film The Master, I tempered my expectations for this one to a minimum. That, coupled with having been told beforehand that the film makes for a better experience when you care less about whether or not the plot makes any sense, turned Inherent Vice into an actually enjoyable film for me. I'm not willing to give the screenplay a full pass—my suspicion is that the movie would have been just as good, if not better, had the plot specifics been less inscrutable—but the rhythm and atmosphere PTA captures here can't be matched. Roger Elswitt's celluloid photography is just a joy to soak up, particularly in the second half of the film (everything from Shasta Fae & Doc running downtown in the rain and onwards), and every member of the ensemble cast brings the goods. If you go in keeping an eye and ear out for the mournful undercurrent behind all that pot smoke, you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
10. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Bizarrely my first non-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli film, Isao Takahata's marvelous adaptation of the classic Japanese folktale won me over with its naturalistic watercolor imagery and the depth to the story's simplicity. There are all sorts of comments on nature and technology, memory and family, the ways people change when they grow out of their humble beginnings and seal themselves off from the land that gave birth to and provided from them. It drags a bit when Kaguya has to deal with the five suitors, but the lack of urgency suits the story well. For two and a quarter hours, Takahata (with composer Joe Hisaishi, once again bringing the string instrument-induced waterworks) invites you to remove yourself from the burdens of the modern world and all the accompanying stress to contemplate where we came from and where we're headed.
I almost don't want to say anything else about Selma at this point because so much has been said already. But this is effective filmmaking, and it's a total shame that politics and studio incompetency prevented Ava DuVernay and her collaborators from having a brighter day in the sun at the upcoming Oscars (no matter; they'll plow onwards with bigger and better projects to be sure). David Oyelowo is perhaps the main attraction, portraying Martin Luther King, Jr. with towering humility and a podium presence that could move mountains. The Bloody Sunday sequence is one of the best I saw all year, and Bradford Young's ravishing cinematography elevates the material above the level of generic biopic. Not that Selma was generic on paper: a microcosmic look at a single episode in one man's vastly interesting life, the writing avoids many of the standard good guy/bad guy/white savior tropes that drag down similar films (though I'm not totally sold on the efficacy of the FBI timestamps).
The definitive movie on what it's like to grow up as a straight, white, Texan boy in early 21st century America is also, thankfully, a great (and mostly successful) experiment in long-term filmmaking and dramaturgical evolution. It's awesome to see Linklater acknowledged and embraced for bringing so much homegrown curiosity to Hollywood, even if his way of seeing the world and mine don't exactly see eye to eye (similar to the gripes I had with Before Midnight last year, though I loved that one anyway). I have no clue how future generations will respond to this one, but for me at least the trip down memory lane (the Harry Potter book launch party! the angsty, Arcade Fire-filled teen years!) was worth it.
7. Force Majeure
If Michael Haneke were Swedish and had a sense of humor, he'd make something like Force Majerue. Ruben Östlund deploys exacting social commentary that will either hit hard and make you squirm or fly right over your head because you're neither married nor inhabiting an IKEA catalogue. Still, there's a lot to appreciate here, from the pristine photography of the French Alps to the snide comedic underpinnings of the whole affair (tell me that soundtrack doesn't sound like the orchestra just snickering at everyone onscreen), and Östlund's usage of blank space and whiteness works unsettling wonders. The infamous avalanche scene that sets the whole story in motion is just the tip of the iceberg, if you will.
I want this to be the #1 film of the year so you'll have a greater impetus for seeing it, but there were still 5 more better than it. In some bygone era, Whiplash would have been the most talked-about movie of 2014, but instead it's a footnote I have to explain to you on the assumption that you didn't see it. (It's not too late! It's still in select theaters!) Director Damian Chazelle must have been on a permanent Red Bull buzz throughout the making of this thing, because it's ferocious, frenetic, and oh-so-much fun. Miles Teller has a shockingly good stage presence (and a believable set of drumming skillz), but J.K. Simmons in a monstrous and career-defining role runs the show as the jazz band conductor from hell. I should be able to just say "Not my tempo" and have everyone reading this grin with devious recognition, so instead I will stop at nothing to make sure that if you see even one movie out of this year's best picture nominees, you make it this one.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
I'm not a Wes Anderson aficionado by any means (I've only seen this, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Royal Tenenbaums), but even I could tell that he's honed his confectionary brand of moviemaking to its apogee, if not close to it. The Grand Budapest Hotel is more shamelessly fun than just about any other movie I saw this year, and even when reveling in its excesses (that Society of the Crossed Keys sequence that keeps going...and going...) it has an actual point to make. I still prefer Moonrise Kingdom when all is said and done, but I will be forever grateful to Wes and Ralph Fiennes for gifting the world with Monsieur Gustave H. and to Alexandre Desplat for ingeniously incorporating Kyrie Eleisons into the soundtrack's leitmotif.
4. Two Days, One Night
I discovered the Dardenne brothers on a pure whim last summer and have summarily gobbled up 5/7ths of their filmography. Although I wouldn't even rank Two Days, One Night within the top three movies of theirs that I've seen thus far, it's still an EXCELLENT movie. This goes to show you just how freaking amazing these guys are at the moviemaking thing. Marion Cotillard is the star here, but I must give due credit to the ensemble cast, without whom the entire film could have flopped. Everyone in this story, not just Cotillard's Sandra, is a palpably real person with relatable, unsolvable problems. That the Dardennes offer empathy and companionship as the prescriptions for their society's ills speaks volumes.
Do you ever feel as though you're the only person who feels a certain way about a certain work of art or entertainment? Cue Foxcatcher. I will take full ownership of my stance on this one as a new American classic, and it's not just the Kodak film getting to me (although that's a HUGE component of it). There are layers of text and subtext going on here, and for every idea that floats to the surface with an ostensibly obvious piece of screenwriting there's a more subtle idea lurking just behind it. Carrell, Tatum, and Ruffalo are the dream team that propel the movie forward, but it's the behind-the-scenes guys—namely the sound engineers—responsible for perfecting the foggy, soured-Americana atmosphere that really make the film sing.
2. Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch's take on the vampire genre is flawless, so far as I'm concerned, and it's handsomely literary (without ever being esoteric) to boot. Though not the only film on this list to confront the idea that the best times are behind us, it's the only one that grounds itself in the realities of the present—by supernatural means, of course—in order to suggest how we can still make meaning out of all the seeming meaninglessness of the modern world. I find it hard to argue with Tilda Swinton's Eve that life is best spent caring for others, appreciating art and nature, and *DANCING* (though most likely for different reasons than what Jarmusch had in mind); one doesn't have to be an immortal bloodsucker to start living life more fully.
1. Under the Skin
The first new movie I saw this year was also the best. I fully acknowledge that the experience of seeing this on opening weekend in an underground hipster movie theater in London on my spring break contributes enormously to the high regard with which I hold Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi horror film, but I'm also inclined to think that the viewing experience of any movie is an integral component of that movie's identity. Unlike a lot of other films on my list, Under the Skin doesn't give a damn about the past because it's far too busy tinkering around with...not the future per se, but with the possibilities cinema still has left to explore. The hidden camera footage, the abstract imagery that miraculously serves a point (if Under the Skin ISN'T anything, it's a pointless collage of freaky images that don't connect to one another in any discernible or meaningful way), and Mica Levi's spectacularly unsettling score (whatever she's smoking had better stay far away from the western hemisphere) all add up to make Under the Skin an unexpected masterpiece. There, I said it.
The Ones That Got Away (for now): CITIZENFOUR, Leviathan, American Sniper, A Most Violent Year, The LEGO Movie, The Immigrant, etc.
The Best Films from Other Years I Watched for the First Time in 2014 : Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Rosetta (1999), Touch of Evil (1958), Blue Velvet (1986), Laurence Anyways (2012)