Drum roll, please!
Below are Indie Outlook’s picks for the Top 10 Films of 2014 (click here to view #11-20). Make sure to scroll all the way down for a special honorable mention that premiered on TV but deserves to be honored alongside last year’s greatest achievements in filmmaking. It’s also worth noting that #1, #4 and #7 would make a mightily intriguing triple bill.
10. Love Is Strange
Ira Sachs’s delicately nuanced love story is one comprised of small observations rather than operatic gestures, yet it is no less urgent than “Citizenfour” or “Selma.” The film was released in Chicago mere days after parishioners voiced their outrage at Holy Family Parish in Inverness, IL, over the firing of their music director, Colin Collette. He lost his job after announcing his engagement to his male partner. That’s precisely what happens to George (Alfred Molina), an NYC music director who marries Ben (John Lithgow), his boyfriend of 39 years, only to suddenly find himself unemployed and unable to keep their apartment. Sachs deftly illustrates the humor and agony felt on all sides as Ben moves in with his nephew (Darren Burrows), his wife (Marisa Tomei) and their son (Charlie Tahan), while George stays with neighbors. The most telling moments are often the ones that are wordless—Molina’s eyes glistening as he listens to a young pupil play Chopin on the piano; Tomei sitting helplessly awake in bed, unable to sleep or get any work done; Tahan overcome with emotion while standing in a stairwell. In its own quiet way, Sachs’s film serves as a sublime rebuke to the anti-gay propaganda masquerading as religious cinema last year.
9. See You Next Tuesday
Drew Tobia’s fiercely funny, viscerally combustible portrait of a desperate family on the fringes of society left me absolutely galvanized when I streamed it on Kentucker Audley’s invaluable site, NoBudge. Eleanor Pienta displays some of the fearlessness that characterized the work of Gena Rowlands as Mona, a pregnant, poverty-stricken young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, who desperately seeks help from her alcoholic mother (Dana Eskelson) and estranged sister (Molly Plunk) before her water breaks. The volcanic rage that erupts from Mona as she finally fights back against the injustice of her bullying co-workers, indifferent boss and smug customers at her miserable grocery store job will resonate with every financially strapped member of my twentysomething generation. Pienta is exhilarating, as are Plunk—tragically clinging to dysfunctional relationships in order to fill the void left by her mother—and Eskelson—nailing the volatile mixture of tenderness and resentment that keeps her children on their toes. At its heart, Tobia’s debut feature is a mature film about immature people who are unapologetically themselves and we can’t help loving them for it even as we cringe, partly out of recognition. It’s in-your-face in all the right ways.
8. The Overnighters
Jesse Moss’s documentary could’ve simply been about a good-hearted Lutheran pastor who risks everything by reaching out to homeless job-seekers in the North Dakota oil fields and inviting them to become members of his parish. The pastor, Jay Reinke, has an affable, charismatic presence that quickly earns the audience’s sympathy as he faces the prejudices of longtime churchgoers concerned with the contamination of their community. But as Moss probes deeper into the conflicted soul of his human subject, long-repressed secrets are revealed that cast everything in a wholly new and exceedingly more provocative light. Not only is this film one of the most astonishing character studies I’ve seen, it is one of the best explorations of the role that faith plays in one’s life—how it can serve as both a healing and destructive force. When it’s publicly revealed that some of the men Reinke has invited into his church—and his home—are sex offenders, the story seems poised to take a wrenching turn and it does, but not necessarily in the way one would expect. Reinke’s brutal honesty regarding his own flaws and hypocrisies make his humanistic crusade all the more powerful and moving to behold. As a documentarian, Moss is in a league with Steve James.
7. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
What director Sam Fleischner achieves in this mesmerizing, sometimes thrillingly abstract New York indie is nothing short of miraculous. Amidst the claustrophobic bustle of commuters, Fleischner shot scenes on the NYC subway system that seamlessly blended reality with staged scenarios involving the misadventures of a 13-year-old autistic runaway, Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez). His distraught mother, Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz), frantically searches for him, though her status as an undocumented immigrant limits the number of methods she can utilize to locate the boy. It’s touching to observe how Ricky’s growing engagement with the world parallels that of Mariana, as she reluctantly reaches out to others for help. Cinematographers Adam Jandrup and Ethan Palmer, editor Talia Barrett and sound designers Eli Cohn and Scott Hirsch deserve to be applauded for their ingenious methods of immersing the viewer within Ricky’s perspective as he takes in vivid surroundings beyond his comprehension. Unlike many of his colleagues, Fleischner clearly flourishes while working in an environment that is impossible to control. Even Hurricane Sandy couldn’t halt the filmmaker in his tracks, and his inclusion of it in the film is especially poignant.
6. Concrete Night
There’s a deleted scene from Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader,” where a teenage boy (David Kross), in the midst of his sexual awakening, stands naked before a mirror, examining his body as if for the first time. I was reminded of this scene all throughout Pirjo Honkasalo’s spellbinding abstract opus, featuring a 14-year-old protagonist, Simo (played by Johannes Brotherus, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Kross), who spends much of the time regarding his reflection—not out of vanity but out of a primal need to understand himself and the mysterious, seemingly doomed world he inhabits. Like “The Reader,” Honkasalo’s film (based on Pirkko Saisio’s book) is a tale of lost innocence. To say Honkasalo is a visionary talent would be an understatement. Every frame of her film, lensed in black and white by Peter Flinckenberg, is a sumptuous treat for the eyes, conveying both the virginal amazement and stomach-churning horror experienced by Simo, as he explores Helsinki while torn between the philosophies of his nihilistic brother and his rather dubious neighbor. Stark and sensual in equal measure, the film is carried by Brotherus, who tackles the physical and emotional nakedness of his role with a fearlessness unseen in most people his age.
5. Life Itself
I consider Roger Ebert to be one of my personal heroes. As a lifelong reader of his work, a colleague who shared a handful of conversations with him in the screening room and, since last February, an employee of The Ebert Company (not to mention a frequent contributor to RogerEbert.com), I am obviously biased when it comes to loving Steve James’s documentary, based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name. Yet it would be a disservice to the film, and to cinema in general, not to include it on my Best of 2014 list because, quite simply, it is one of the year’s best movies and an embodiment of Ebert’s belief in cinema as an empathy-generating machine. Filmed in the last four months of his life, the critic forges ahead in his work while continuing his courageous battle with cancer. “It’s not just your movie,” Ebert tells James, insisting that the director include an unflinching account of his health struggles. Thus, the film works on multiple levels: as an engaging profile of a journalist-turned-superstar, a hilarious ode to his love/hate friendship with “At the Movies” co-host Gene Siskel and a profoundly moving portrait of love transcending the pain of terminal illness. “It’s not what a film is about, it’s how it is about it,” Ebert wrote. “Life Itself” does its subject proud.
4. Under the Skin
In a spellbinding contrast to her work in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Scarlett Johansson is tasked to perform primarily with her body in Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic mind-bender. Any dialogue she utters, which is minimal, offers no inkling of the inner-workings of her mind. Any humanity she has initially appears to be only skin deep, as she lures her smitten male victims to their imminent demise. Though the plot remains ambiguous, it is inferred that beneath Johansson’s flesh resides an alien life form immune to human feeling. She may have mastered the art of seduction, exploiting the male gaze and its hunger for female objectification, but she has little clue of how the human body and mind function. As he did in his famous extended take of Nicole Kidman in 2004’s “Birth,” Glazer maintains an intense focus on Johansson’s saucer-eyed, emotionless face framed in dark curls and she responds by delivering the strongest work of career. She’s an empty vessel and her sultry words are merely that of an adept performer, but once she endures her first pangs of vulnerability, there’s no turning back. Much like “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors,” Glazer uses documentary techniques to view humanity from an alien perspective, making the familiar fresh and unsettling.
3. Stations of the Cross
Dietrich Brüggemann’s audacious masterwork is a wake-up call of incalculable importance. Divided into 14 chapters, each captured in a single take and inspired by Christ’s journey of sacrifice, this shattering drama revolves around 14-year-old Maria (Lea van Acken) on the eve of her confirmation, as she takes the words of her pastor (Florian Stetter) deeply to heart. Shunning all that is deemed satanic while interpreting illness as a punishment from God, Maria takes it upon herself to “heal” her mute brother. When the girl tries opening up about the minefield of fear and guilt set by her mother (Franziska Weisz) at home, the pastor reminds her of the commandment ordering her to honor her parents. A particularly heartbreaking subplot involves a boy at school who could prove to be a good influence on her, had she not rejected him along with the transcendent beauty of her surroundings. The film warrants comparison with “Breaking the Waves” and “The White Ribbon” in its depiction of how fundamentalism, when taken to its fanatical extremes, is ultimately an embracement of death fueled by the denial of uncertainty. None of the characters are demonized, not even the mother, who is every bit as tragic a figure. Film Movement will release “Stations” this summer.
Like many critically beloved films, Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” has received an impassioned backlash. Its detractors have argued that the film misrepresents jazz and portrays its monstrous teacher, Mr. Fletcher (a ferocious J.K. Simmons), as a genius who gets the best out of his students—if he doesn’t kill them first. Such criticisms miss the point entirely. “Whiplash” isn’t really about music, it’s about a mentality. 19-year-old Andrew (Miles Teller, never better) is a victim of the same abuse inflicted upon Maria in “Stations of the Cross,” except that his religion is drumming and his church is a prestigious conservatory. He’s been led to believe that “being good” is never good enough, and that in order to be great, relationships must be cut, blood must be shed and one’s own identity must be compromised and contorted until it is virtually unrecognizable. The rehearsal scenes here are as bruising, foul-mouthed and visceral as the boxing matches in “Raging Bull” (bravo, editor Tom Cross). And the jaw-dropping finale, a controversial section far more complex and ambiguous than some have suggested, recalls the unforgettable closing moments of Darren Aronofsky’s best feature, “The Wrestler,” with Paul Reiser standing in for Marisa Tomei. Think about it.
If “Stations of the Cross” and “Whiplash” were about the death of a soul, then Pawel Pawlikowski’s glorious masterpiece is about the awakening of one. For as long as she can remember, Anna (beguiling newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) has lived in a convent. She is a meek introvert with a face Bresson would’ve loved. On the eve of taking her vows, Anna is urged by the Mother Superior to meet with her estranged aunt, Wanda (a marvelously feisty Agata Kulesza), before she commits her life to being a nun. Camera operator-turned-cinematographer Lukasz Zal brilliantly enables the film’s 1.37:1 aspect ratio to externalize Anna’s psychology. She’s often nestled into a corner of the frame, with the copious headroom seeming to reflect the sprawling uncharted territory she has yet to explore—both in the world and within herself. Pawlikowski has said in interviews that this was an instinctive choice, and its impact is immeasurable, capturing details that would’ve been obscured by more traditional framing. When Anna learns that her parents were, in fact, Jewish and died during the Holocaust (and that her real name is Ida), she sets out on a journey that will cause her to question the very foundation of her identity. Trzebuchowska portrays each step of her character’s internal journey with such unmannered grace that it never hits a single false note. When a ritual that she has long participated in suddenly strikes her as amusing, the soft chuckle Trzebuchowska elicits is tantamount to an earthquake. That scene alone makes this film my favorite of 2014. The fact that Zal’s compositions are so gorgeous and artfully poetic that they make me want to hang every single shot of the film on my wall—is icing on the gourmet cake.
SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTION
The equal of any film on this list, Lisa Cholodenko’s four-part HBO miniseries is cinema of the highest order. Frances McDormand receives her finest showcase since “Fargo,” yet her chronically depressed anti-heroine here could not be more fundamentally removed from the big-hearted, clear-eyed cop that earned her a well-deserved Oscar. Olive is a difficult character to embrace and could’ve easily become repellant, but McDormand makes her such a fascinating, exquisitely realized human being that the audience can’t help but hang on her every word. Jane Anderson’s immaculate screenplay adapts Elizabeth Stout’s book—which followed various inhabitants of a coastal Maine village—with great care, while restructuring the narrative to place Olive front and center. Richard Jenkins is equally enthralling as Olive’s husband, Henry, who smiles though her scowling remarks, showering her with love and carrying her emotional baggage until his legs give out. Though he only has a handful of screen time late in the film, Bill Murray delivers his best performance in years as a fitting companion for Olive. They are mismatched in many ways, but his refusal to enable her worst tendencies turns out to be life-altering. What a wise film about people, and what a triumphant counterpoint to the shameful stigmatization of mental illness and the mainstream notion of commercial likability. A magical experience.
Other Honorable Mentions: “Birdman”; “Blue Ruin”; “Child’s Pose”; “Finding Vivian Maier”; “Foxcatcher”; “How to Train Your Dragon 2”; “The Immigrant”; “Inherent Vice”; “Joe”, “Land Ho!”; “The Lego Movie”; “Listen Up Philip”; “Only Lovers Left Alive”; “Snowpiercer”; “Tracks”; “Two Days, One Night”; “Winter Sleep”