The best films of 2014 were merciless on marriage (unless you’re a vampire), often obsessed with things of the past (most especially if you’re a vampire) and enveloped in profoundly evocative, inventive, hypnotic, ingeniously deployed music from the likes of Trent Reznor, Mica Levi, Jozef van Wissem, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood—music of the sort that rarely gets noticed by the awards people yet raises the atmospheres of their respective films to dizzying heights.
I’m alarmed by the dominance of US or UK films on this list of mine, which says something not about the quality of foreign language films in 2014 but, rather, their increasingly neglectful distribution in Canada—I’ve made a list elsewhere of the year’s best films waiting for distribution and all of them are from other, non-English-speaking countries.
I hope you’ve seen some if not several of the films below (I kick things off with a no-brainer—don’t be calling me no contrarian!), and that you feel compelled to seek out those you haven’t seen, or perhaps haven’t even heard of. As always, there’s no ranking, and in fact I urge you to pay equal attention to the titles listed in that final paragraph—sometimes those “honourable mentions” have a funny way of sticking with you longer than some of the titles that leap immediately to the final cut.
That Richard Linklater’s 165-minue, 12-years-in-the-making chronicle of one reasonably ordinary kid coming of age in Texas turned out to be a major crowd-pleaser serves as a welcome antidote to the token cynicism that to draw an audience you need baroque mythologies and shit blowing up every ten minutes—why not someone growing up every ten minutes? At once epic and intimate, sweeping and absorbed with minutia and achingly fleeting moments, Boyhood broadens our notion of what movies can do—and Patricia Arquette’s turn here has stayed with me as one of 2014’s most moving supporting performances.
It is the accumulation of several smaller events—a rock hurled at a car window, the reading of a letter, a meeting interrupted—that imbues Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s most recent film with its gravity. The story of a hotel proprietor unable to recognize how his condescension and arrogance has distanced him from those he loves and wants to be loved by—including his younger, resentful wife—Winter Sleep is roughly based on Chekhov but the way it unfolds over its three hours-plus, largely through protracted yet tense and riveting conversations in gloomy rooms, recalls Bergman.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is a comic narcotic noir about love, drugs, corruption and real estate in 1970 Los Angeles, with each of its key characters—Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Joaquin Phoenix—representing a different aspect of that moment’s cultural sea change.
Speaking of Phoenix, the consistently under-loved American auteur James Gray’s latest features another truly remarkable performance from the actor, in a role that incrementally, fascinatingly migrates from the film’s fairly despicable villain to a figure of tremendous pathos. Of course, the star of this gorgeous, Cimino-esque melodrama is the magnificent Marion Cotillard, in another of the year’s best performances, playing a Polish woman attempting to forge a life in 1920s New York.
Two Days, One Night
And speaking of Marion Cotillard, she knocked it out of the park again this year as the first movie star to feature in a Dardennes Brothers film. She plays an emotionally troubled woman trying to convince her fellow factory workers to help save her job—by declining a pay raise.
Gone Girl, Force Majeure
Marriage is examined and diagnosed malignant in these two blackly comic, elegantly crafted but otherwise very different films, one a sprawling noir procedural about a missing woman from novelist Gillian Flynn and director David Fincher, the other a chilly chamber drama from Swedish director Ruben Östlund about a family ski vacation run horrendously off-track by a cowardly gesture made in a moment of panic.
Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive
Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel follows Scarlett Johansson as an alien hunter harvesting horny Scottish hunks before going perilously native. Deeply creepy in its tonal precision, with echoes of Kubrick and Roeg, and anthropological in its outsider view of life on Earth, this is science fiction without the token exposition. Jim Jarmusch’s latest, about non-violent vampires, is also a fantastical genre film, albeit one that forgoes most of its genre’s tropes in favour of the director’s trademark deadpan humour, nocturnal tours of Detroit and Tangiers, scenes of musical bliss, and, in contrast to the preceding marriage-stinks narratives, a tender and insightful tribute to long-term love. (I mean, really, really long-term.)
20,000 Days on Earth
Nick Cave could be a cousin to Tom Hiddleston’s pale, raven-haired, brooding rocker in Only Lovers, but Cave is a living, breathing, touring, eating (more or less), aging, hard-working family man residing in Brighton. Which is to say he isn’t fictional—or is he? Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s enormously inventive, insightful feature debut is a documentary profile of the Australian-born singer-songwriter on his 20,000th day of existence, which involves car-bound conversations with ghosts, an aborted lunch with Warren Ellis, visits to his archive and his Foucault-lookalike shrink, and a recording session. ‘Higgs-Boson Blues’ gives me chills.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inspired by the fictions of Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson’s frenetic, nostalgic, melancholy comedy is set in the 1930s, much of it in the titular alpine hotel nested in a fictional central European republic gradually falling prey to a thuggish foreign power. Dark times loom, yet at the Grand Budapest all efforts are made to stall time and maintain a rarified air. Ralph Fiennes gives one of his most dynamic and appealing performances as the dandyish proprietor and mentor to a young bellhop.
Stranger By the Lake
Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By the Lake is a starkly seductive, all-male, Hitchcockian thriller set entirely at a secluded nude beach and the surrounding woods used for cruising. One evening, after everyone else has left the beach, a man witnesses a murder—but this doesn’t keep him from coming back the next day and flirting with the killer. Death and eros are tangled up, yet the motives are as mysterious as the sex is explicit.
Some other films I’d be remiss to exclude from any look back on 2014: the great Paulina García gave my single-most favourite performance in Sebastián Lelio’s brilliant character study Gloria; Mark Ruffalo was for me the stand-out in a trio of remarkable performances in Bennett Miller’s bracingly bleak Foxcatcher; Agata Kulesza is wonderful, fierce, sad and ornery in Pawel Pawlokowski’s exquisite Ida; Kelly Reichardt makes a couple of tonal fumbles but still comes off as one of the US’s best filmmakers with Night Moves; Nicolas Cage gave a fearsome yet heartfelt performance in David Gordon Green’s Joe; and Petra Costa made one of the year’s most haunting and lovely doc feature debuts with her grief memoir Elena.