by Duane Porter
There’s been a lot of discussion over the past few months concerning the state of cinema in 2014. Many seem to feel that it was a decidedly mediocre year for movies. I can agree, there have been years when it seemed that something wonderful opened every week during October, November, and especially, December. This was not one of those years. But, when all is said and done, 2014 has been a truly fabulous year. Living far from New York, L.A., and any of the major film festivals, It has taken a lot longer this year for me to have an opportunity to see the ten films that comprise this list, but, they were there all along.
“She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.”
“That you, Shasta?”
“Need your help, Doc.”
Disguised as a detective story, riffing on The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye, it’s really a picaresque whimsy on which to hang a poem about the passage of time and the sense of loss. What’s it all about? It doesn’t matter any more than it did in The Big Sleep. Often obliquely funny but drenched in a soul-numbing sadness, Inherent Vice is a metaphor for the built-in unavoidable fleeting nature of all things human.
All things human and and all the things humans strive for, just when we think we’ve caught sight of nirvana it always seems to slip away as if there is some dark force holding us back. “Was it possible, that at every gathering — concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever — those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?”
As Doc and Shasta drive into the fog, the glow of headlights passing over their faces, Shasta says, “Being with you is like being under the sea, where the whole world ceases to matter.” Doc says, “But it doesn’t mean we’re back together.” She replies, “Of course not.”
“Incongruity can transform the banal into the fantastic. Two images – familiar in ambience but incongruent in time – when juxtaposed, create a third reality.” — Yvonne Rainer
“Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality.” So begins another chapter in Godard’s life-long inquiry into the nature of perception. For him, everything is cinema. Politics and cataclysms, paintings and literature, all of human experience including the most intimate details. Because life is the subject. This is an attempt to describe the ineffable, to revel in sensory experiences that transcend the need for explanation. As Susan Sontag said in Against Interpretation (1964) about another beautiful film, “What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of it’s images.”
Value is to be found directly in the images and sounds presented. It is not one’s task to understand what’s being shown but rather to participate in the creative act using one’s eyes and ears. This is a film about perception. Perception without interpretation, without the scrim of language, without the incessant need to ascribe meaning. Seeing as a dog sees.
There is more wonder and awe, here, in a single shot of a woman’s hands in a pool of water than I have found in all of the Hollywood blockbusters that I have seen, combined. Coming out of the theater I was surprised to find that the world had become, once again, a magical place.
“The only future she can have is to change herself, and so because of that conflict she grows, and she separates from the past. It touched me so much. This separation, it’s always painful. What’s painful, actually, is the nonacceptance, the resisting is painful. And when we stop resisting, then the magic happens.” — Juliette Binoche
Juliette Binoche portrays a celebrated actress preparing for an upcoming performance who is finding it difficult to accept the passage of time. Kristen Stewart, as her much younger personal assistant, is helping her rehearse lines. From one scene to another, there are echos of Bette Davis’ travails in All About Eve, Margit Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Gena Rowlands’ despair in Opening Night, and, most especially, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Persona.
This film is about actresses, aging, and identity. The actresses, the actresses, at once fragile and strong, self-centered and generous, vindictive and forgiving, encompassing the range of human emotion. It is rare to see two performances so vulnerable and open. Running lines, invested in differing viewpoints, in and out of character, “The text is like an object, It’s gonna change perspective based on where you’re standing.” One can invent stories in an attempt to explain the enigma of this beautiful film but, as with Bergman’s Persona, some mysteries are not meant to be solved.
“People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.” — Anton Chekhov
Freely inspired by the short stories of Anton Chekhov, Winter Sleep is a literary, often philosophical, dialogue on the nature of human relationships. Unfolding like a Russian novel, it deals with the issues of class, property, religion and history, but mostly it is concerned with self-deception, the things we tell ourselves in order not to be overcome by darkness, despair, and sadness for no reason.
Ceylan has fashioned a masterful character study centering on the complex interactions of a complacent middle-aged narcissist with his bitter recently-divorced sister and his increasingly-estranged much younger wife. Their long and searing exchanges take us very near the realm of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light and Scenes From a Marriage. As the wife sums up her contempt for her husband, “You’re an unbearable man,” the bleak beauty of Ceylan’s cinema shines through.
The recurrent strains of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 evoke Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (perhaps cinema’s greatest expression of the human condition). Ultimately, this is what we are left with, figures against a landscape, human faces by a fire, a wild horse being set free. These are what this film is about, that and snow.
“You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”
Nothing terribly exciting happens to Mason, but in the end I guess you can say life happens, and that’s enough. As Ethan Hawke put it, “…life doesn’t have to be hyperbolized. What we actually experience is good enough…we’ll probably never know the point of it all. The point of it all maybe is just to enjoy the passage of time.”
Boyhood opens with a young boy lying in the grass looking at the sky, waiting for his mother during a parent-teacher conference, and closes with a young man, his first day on his own having just gone off to college, sitting next to a pretty girl he has just met, enjoying the moment. In between, Linklater gives us a film that looks at twelve years in the life of a family, largely side-stepping the milestone events while focusing on the ordinary moments in between, all the little mundane details, cultural commonalities, and everyday cliches that make up the passing of time. And, in this movie, the fleeting passage of time is made palpable. When the mother, looking back on her life as her youngest leaves for college, says, “I just thought there would be more,” the poignancy is startling.
” …human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.” ― Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
A girl enters a cemetary to visit the grave of an author. She carries a book bearing the title of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Cut to the author’s study in 1985. The author, very much alive, looks directly into the camera and begins to tell of the circumstances that led him to write the book.
Flashback to 1968, when the author was staying at the Grand Budapest for reasons of health. It was during this time that he met the hotel’s owner, Zero Moustafa, and learned of the story of M. Gustave.
Now it is 1932 and the The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the most luxurious hotels in all of Europe. Zero has just begun his time as a lobby boy under the tutelage of M. Gustave, the hotel’s impeccable concierge.
With this story within a story within a story, Wes Anderson has crafted an intricate jewel box of a film, a cabinet of curiosities, a museum of Europe not unlike a shadowbox by Joseph Cornell. This is an elegy to a time of craftsmanship, decorum, and a certain refinement of thought, all very reminiscent of the films of Ernst Lubitsch, the master of sophisticated elegance. Further, Anderson has set his magical tale in the fictional kingdom of Zubrowka, much like Lubitsch’s own Sylvania or perhaps even Nabokov’s Zembla.
But this was also a time of impending peril in Europe and as the clouds of darkness began to gather, M. Gustave tries to maintain “a glimmer of civilization in this barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.” Now, after the storm, M. Gustave’s glimmer can only remain in Wes Anderson’s beautiful, elegiac preservation of a memory.
“What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” — Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
Agatha, all dressed in black from head to toe, looks a bit like Nerval’s beloved Aurelia back from the dead as she steps off the bus into the bright southern California sunlight and gets into a black limousine that she has requested. As they pass through Hollywood, she chats with the driver about the famous people he has met as a chauffeur. They stop and get out, walk up a hill, and then she is standing before a burned-out foundation below the looming Hollywood sign.
The horror, the horror. Maps to the Stars is a dark comedy nightmare of a haunted Hollywood. On it’s surface, a banal narrative of people behaving badly in Tinseltown displaying the usual paranoia, resentment, and sense of entitlement. But Cronenberg is after something else. Nodding to the ghosts of surrealism, he uses heightened performances to bring forth these pitiable monsters with a glorious twisted hilarity. Gradually, the topicality gives way to something more universal and more deserving of sympathy, a vortex of dysfunctional emotions, mental illness, and a yearning to escape from it all.
“On all flesh that says yes, On the forehead of my friends,
On each hand that is held out, I write your name.”
“I moved to Beacon. I’m not acting. So this is my creative outlet.”
“I moved to Beacon. I’m not acting. So this is my creative outlet.”
This is Brandy Burre, an actress, in what could be the role of a lifetime, playing herself. She had a recurring role on the popular television series, The Wire. Then she got pregnant. She decided to take time away from acting to raise a family. Now, with her second child out of diapers, she wants to get back into acting. It was hard enough the first time, but now, nearing 40 it is harder than ever.
Brandy is at the sink washing dishes, feeling trapped in her roles as mother and domestic partner, we hear her say, “I tend to break things.” Robert Greene’s camera is here to document the end of a relationship.
This remarkable film examines the nature of performance, the roles we play everyday. As Brandy says, “I’m amazed at how many roles there are, and how we all agree to them, even when we don’t.” Like a Sirkian domestic melodrama shot by John Cassavetes, Actress blurs the already nebulous boundaries between real and make-believe and gives us an unforgettable picture of a woman on the verge.
“The more I think of it, I find this conclusion more impressed upon me—that the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.” — John Ruskin
Mike Leigh’s portrait of the artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner, has little interest in the dramatic arcs of conventional biopics. He instead follows the lead of Peter Watkin’s Edvard Munch or Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, films that consider the physical and social environment the artist lives in. With an inordinate density of detail and a fine attention to light and color, we follow Mr. Turner through the day to day events of his life. An unwelcome visit from his ex and his unacknowleded offspring. A more pleasant visit from his brilliant cousin Mary Somerville. Recieving guests in his studio and showroom. Passing through an exhibition at the Academy. Attending a social gathering at the home of John Ruskin.
Just as Boyhood dealt with the early years of a life, Mr. Turner deals with the late years of a life. With a very real compassion, Leigh portrays the artist as a mostly inarticulate, deeply sad individual with an innate inability to make any real human connection. After the death of his father, the one person he seems to have loved, he finds a certain solace in the company of the widow, Mrs. Boone. It is with her that he spends the last days of his life, days spent studying the weather while tied to a ship’s mast, or watching an old sailing ship being towed to a salvage yard by a new ship that is powered by steam. For this film is, also, a meditation on the day by day passage of time. Life is, after all, a succession of days.
“I wanted to know if you’d be prepared to vote for me to keep my job”
Sandra, returning to her job after an extended period of depression, finds that she is to be let go. During her time of sick-leave the company has found it can function without her by offering bonuses to the other employees to increase production. After a friend convinces the boss to give her a second chance, she has one weekend to convince her fellow workers to forego their bonus so she can keep her job.
This is very much a situational melodrama, tempered with the Dardennes’ trademark naturalism, that centers on the way a ruthless capitalism puts often desperate workers into competition with each other regardless of their own personal ethics or what their various plights might have in common.
This might be a lesser effort from the Dardennes it not for their lead actress whose commitment to the role gives it an undeniable dignity. Her character, Sandra, is a working-class woman conditioned to equate her self-worth with her job. Now, on the verge of becoming unemployed after suffering a nervous breakdown, she is beginning to feel like she doesn’t exist. Marion Cotillard is an actress gifted with great empathy. She brings an extraordinarily nuanced fragility to her portrayal of a woman desparately trying to cope with life’s daily strugggles. Delving deep into her understanding of the commonality of human frailty, she has succeeded in delivering a performance tinged with greatness.
Runner-ups (limited to ten and listed in alphabetical order):
Birdman, Force Majeure, Interstellar, Leviathan, Listen Up Philip, Miss Julie, Obvious Child, The Skeleton Twins, While We’re Young, Wild Tales.