These films mean so very much to me.
The best thing an end-of-the-year list can do is entice readers to seek out movies they might have otherwise overlooked, and that is precisely what I intend to do with my two-part feature ranking the Top Twenty Films of 2014. A sincere thank you to all of the filmmakers who continue to push the form in exciting new directions, show me characters unlike any I have seen before onscreen and cut directly to the deepest truths of the human experience. Anyone questioning whether cinema has anything left to offer—apart from superhero franchises and soulless reboots—should look no further than the following twenty titles, which stand as unequivocal proof that essential art is still being screened in theaters both in America and around the world. With no further ado, here is Part I of Indie Outlook’s list…
20. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Here’s a film that literally left me dancing in the aisles. On the heels of what I consider to be his best film to date, “Moonrise Kingdom,” Wes Anderson took the nesting doll narratives of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig as his inspiration for this wildly ambitious project. With fastidious glee, Ralph Fiennes sets the tone as M. Gustave, concierge at a sprawling hotel nestled in the fictional hills of Zubrowka. His performance is a hoot, yet as in all Anderson protagonists, there are abundant shades of melancholy beneath the deadpan pokerface. The relationship he forges with an owl-eyed lobby boy (Tony Revolori) forms the heart of the picture, which walks a tightrope between slapstick farce and bittersweet poignance. Perhaps the film’s most impressive achievement is how it maintains Anderson’s trademark compositional complexity within Robert Yeoman’s compressed aspect ratio. A splendid visual delight from its first frame onward, the film also contains a score so infectiously exuberant that it left me dancing during the end credits—until a tiny man materialized in a corner of the screen and began dancing with me. I love it when that happens.
19. The Babadook
If there is a key to understanding why Australian director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature is the most effective horror film in many years, it lies in the exquisitely anxiety-inducing editing by Simon Njoo. Take an early scene where an emotionally frayed widow, Amelia (a magnificent Essie Davis), sits on a park bench as her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), plays on a nearby jungle gym. Amelia is having a conversation with someone next to her as Samuel climbs higher and higher, all the while begging his mother to observe his feat of balancing. Every shot is cut a few frames shorter or longer than one would expect, producing a sense of mounting unease as the audience becomes perched on the edge of their seats, awaiting a visual payoff, which is, in this case, the unnerving sight of a smiling Samuel standing precariously atop a bar as Amelia finally watches in horror. The film then jarringly cuts to Amelia driving swiftly back home as Samuel wails in the backseat. Apart from being an A-grade monster movie, Kent’s thriller is also one of the most haunting pictures ever made about the paranoia of parenthood and the terror that arises from events beyond one’s control.
18. Ellie Lumme
Whereas “The Babadook” is about a malicious apparition, film critic-turned-filmmaker Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s entrancing vignette is, in the director’s own words, “a ghost story without a ghost.” After collaborating with writer/director/actor Stephen Cone so unforgettably in “The Wise Kids,” my favorite film of 2012, it’s wonderful to see actress Allison Torem paired with him again. Whereas Torem’s devout Christian in “Wise Kids” was sincere in her every word, her Ellie is painfully insecure, cloaking her vulnerability within a repellant façade of sardonic detachment. That’s what initially attracts her to Ned (chillingly played by Cone), a bitter man who embodies everything her persona aspires to be. When Ellie shuns his advances, Ned turns on a dime into a loathsome stalker whose actions become even more unseemly once it’s revealed that he has a wife and kid. When Ellie brings this up, Ned responds, “This isn’t my life, this is someone else’s. I just got tricked into living it.” With top-notch cinematography from Cory Popp and an excellent script by Vishnevetsky, this 40-minute short has more memorable lines and intriguing depth than countless films three times its length.
17. This Afternoon
I don’t believe there is a filmmaker more gifted at exploring repressed sexuality than Stephen Cone. From the religious couple losing their virginity on the eve of the apocalypse in “The Christians” to the homeschooled woman who has a spiritual epiphany while performing nude scenes onstage in “Black Box,” Cone’s characters are unlike any in modern cinema. They aren’t caricatures inviting our condescension but fully-formed beings worthy of our empathy. Using the premise of Cone’s own terrific short film, “Support,” as its starting point, “This Afternoon” develops into a Linklater-esque two-hander about a seminary student, Paul (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), who finds himself drawn to an unhappily married woman, Hillary (Nikki Pierce), after meeting her in a sex addiction support group. Their conversation turns various stereotypes regarding celibate Christians and promiscuous housewives on their head, while uniting the unlikely companions in their shared loneliness and need for a connection. This prolonged encounter culminates in a tour de force of unbridled eroticism and healing catharsis, one of the most powerful sequences Cone has ever directed.
16. Speed Walking
Speaking of sexual awakenings in film last year, few were portrayed with as much shocking honesty as the one experienced by Villads Bøye in Niels Arden Oplev’s uncommonly perceptive coming-of-age drama. Resembling a Danish “Almost Famous”-era Patrick Fugit, Bøye plays Martin, a 14-year-old boy who must grapple with the death of his mother in the midst of a typically confusing adolescence. The hilariously absurd sport of “speed walking” becomes an apt metaphor for the measured steps and gawky guilelessness of a life in evolution. With his hormones raging, Martin is consumed with feelings of lust for both his pretty schoolmate, Kristine (Kraka Donslund Nielsen), and his close friend, Kim (Frederik Winther Rasmussen). It’s depressing to ponder how an American remake would go about defining Martin’s sexuality as leaning one way or the other, and Oplev is utterly uninterested in branding his young protagonist with a label. How refreshing to see a film that regards sexuality in terms that aren’t black and white. Bøye and Rasmussen share two scenes of such tender, unguarded intimacy that they left me awestruck.
During my trip to the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, I was able to snag a ticket to the premiere screening of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “The Banishment.” It was an overwhelming experience in terms of sensory splendor, yet the story was so bleak and cumbersome that it became interminable. Zvyangintsev’s latest picture, which earned last year’s Best Screenplay award at Cannes, is every bit as tragic, but infinitely more compelling—both as pure drama and as a commentary of universal relevance. Aleksey Serebryakov is utterly heartbreaking as Nikolai, an average working-class man who finds his life crumbling much like that of Job in the Bible. His house is in danger of being seized by a despicable mayor (Roman Madyanov), his wife (Elena Lyadova) is drifting into a doom-laden affair and his alcoholism is making his temper more violent. The film is a scathing microcosm not just of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but of a world where the middle class is getting bullied and starved into extinction, while the church extinguishes any semblance of spirituality with its insidious hypocrisy. A towering achievement as grand and grim as the whale skeleton ominously washed ashore.
Filmmaker Richard Linklater evolves right alongside his onscreen human subjects in this triumphant gamble, a twelve-years-in-the-making project charting the growth of a boy (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18. Linklater and his cast created the story together, devising new ways for their characters to develop without ever succumbing to contrived melodrama. Clocking in about 15 minutes shy of three hours and yet never feeling overlong, the picture seamlessly jumps from year to year without ever conspicuously drawing attention to the fractures in time. With his trusted editor Sandra Adair, Linklater beautifully conveys how the human mind processes memories and reflects on past events. Transcendent moments can never be planned or orchestrated, only experienced, and that is precisely what Linklater gets so right. As the boy’s estranged father, Ethan Hawke delivers the performance of his career while bringing out the best in his young co-stars. There’s a wonderful moment when he strains to preserve his son’s waning belief in magic by describing the awesome majesty of whales, only to give up in light of the boy’s dogged pursuit for the truth.
13. The President
You know a film is working you over when you suddenly find yourself unable to breathe. That’s how I felt during the last scene of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s galvanizing Iranian drama laced with satire and fleeting beauty that shimmers all the brighter amidst ever-escalating chaos. The film kicks off with a fabulous opening sequence: an elderly dictator (Misha Gomiashvili, resembling the captain of Cameron’s “Titanic”) impresses his grandson (Dachi Orvelashvili, a pint-sized wonder) by demonstrating the extent of his great power. He orders the lights of his land to be switched off, then on, then off again. Not only does he hold the world in the palm of his hand, he takes delight in bouncing it down the hall with no regard to what it might break in the process. Yet the fun stops when the lights suddenly fail to turn back on, signaling the overthrow of his regime from a public calling for his head. Only when he’s forced to go incognito—blending in with citizens on the lowliest end of the economic scale (a la “Sullivan’s Travels”)—does he face the horrors he’s blissfully ignored throughout his leadership. He may be an evil man, but his love for his grandson is genuine.
There is a moment in Laura Poitras’s electrifying documentary where the fire alarm goes off outside Edward Snowden’s hotel room. He’s in the midst of final preparations to release an onslaught of explosive evidence regarding the NSA’s illegal covert surveillance programs, and a sudden evacuation would likely prove to be disastrous. Snowden continues speaking with Poitras and his colleague, Glenn Greenwald, but the alarm continues to sound again and again. This is merely one example of how “Citizenfour” masterfully burrows itself deep within the psyche of Snowden and the generation of muckraking journalists that he represents. He is willing to live his life with one eye over his shoulder if it means making public information too vital and frightening for the mainstream media to stomach. No matter how one feels about Snowden and his controversial actions, Poitras’s film works as an immensely provocative meditation on our collective loss of privacy in a technological age where anything is hackable. Full disclosure: my cousin, Jeremy Scahill (an Oscar-nominee last year for “Dirty Wars”), is featured toward the end and founded the site, The Intercept, with Poitras and Greenwald.
If you’re not cheering by the end of Ava DuVernay’s stirring portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the courageous marches that he led to secure equal voting rights in Alabama, then you’re probably dead. Casting David Oyelowo in the lead role is truly a match made in heaven. He had the strongest scenes in “The Butler,” sparring with his father whose profession he found degrading, and had a memorable cameo in Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” reciting the president’s words back to him as a reminder of the ideals he had promised to uphold. Like “Lincoln,” “Selma” focuses on a small yet crucial section of a great man’s life and manages to say much more about it than a traditional biopic ever could. We see his strategizing, his uncertainty and his tense marriage, and though screenwriter Paul Webb was unable to use any of King’s own words, he captures the staggering power of his eloquence. As King, Oyelowo is thrilling to behold during his rousing speeches, yet he’s every bit as impressive during the more intimate scenes, such as when he comforts a grieving father or wavers before answering a pointed question from his wife. It’s a performance for the ages.