The film of the year, plus other standouts, home-viewing highlights, and disappointments in 2014.
Film of the Year
The Story of My Death (Albert Serra, Spain/France)
Of all the films I saw in 2014, Albert Serra’s The Story of My Death is the one I most look forward to seeing again, particularly in light of this interview. Beautifully made, and featuring some of the smartest and wittiest dialogue of any film this year (superbly delivered by non-professionals, notably Vincenç Altaió as Casanova), the singularity of Albert Serra’s conception is quite extraordinary. While the pacing may test some, this substantial work will appeal to those keen on formally acute, philosophically contemplative cinema.
- Bastards (Claire Denis, France, 2013)
- Black Coal Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, China)
- Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2013)
- Concerning Violence (Göran Hugo Olsson, Sweden)
- Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, UK, 2013)
- Fish & Cat (Shahram Mokri, Iran, 2013)
- Goodbye to Language 3D (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA)
- Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland/Denmark, 2013)
- Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA, 2013)
- Hard to be a God (Aleksei German Sr, Russia, 2013)
- Maidan (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)
- Manakamana (Stephanie Spray/Pacho Velez, UK, 2013)
- Notes to Eternity (Sarah Cordery, NZ)
- Our Sunhi (Hong Sang-soo, Korea, 2013)
- Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France, 2013)
- Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013)
- Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, USA)
- Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
- El Espíritu de la colmena (Victor Erice, Spain, 1974)
- El Sur (Victor Erice, Spain, 1983)
- Il Generale Della Rovere (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1959)
- Mes Petites amoureuses (Jean Eustache, France, 1974)
- Miss Violence (Alexandros Avranas, Greece, 2013)
- Moderato Cantabile (Peter Brook, France, 1960)
- My Darling Clemetine (John Ford, USA, 1946)
- Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1948)
- Sundays and Cybele (Serge Bourguignon, France, 1962)
- The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, USA, 1941)
- The Films of Peter Thompson (Peter Thompson, USA, 1982-2009)
- There Was a Father (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1942)
The films of Victor Erice are exceptional. I never tire of The Spirit of the Beehive, and El Sur gets richer with every viewing. If you don’t know these films they are worth tracking down, particularly if you’re willing to spend time with them.
Jean Eustache is better known for his monumental La Maman et la putain (1968), but his subtle masterwork Mes petites amourueses (1974) is every bit as good. It may be hard to track down, but it’s well worth it.
Getting a handle on American director John Ford has eluded me for many years, but after seeing Criterion’s beautiful Blu-ray transfer of My Darling Clementine, I’m beginning to see why he is so revered. The film is a masterpiece, superior (in my view) to some of his more acclaimed works, such as The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—good films of course, but the poetic qualities of My Darling Clementine lift it to another level.
Likewise, getting to know the films of Italian master Roberto Rossellini is worth the effort, although some may find the religious aspects harder to swallow than those of Robert Bresson or Andrei Tarkovsky. His films may not be as technically or aesthetically refined as others, but there is gold in them-thar Rossellini hills.
There Was a Father is an early film by Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu that ought to be ranked among the best of his mature works. Beautifully paced and composed, this poignant study of the relationship between a sole-parent and his son is a wonderfully contemplative gem—and all the more interesting for having been made during the Second World War.
Victor Kossakovsky’s Demonstration was one of the few disappointments of this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, not a bad film exactly, but not the equal of his more insightful earlier work (or Sergei Loznitsa’s similar but superior Maidan).
Since his impressive debut with The Return in 2003, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s films have moved progressively toward the mainstream. Leviathan fails to come close to what critic Jonathan Romney describes as a “behemoth of intelligent cinema, a mysterious, poetic, contemplative film of ferocious political rage, metaphysical resonance and visionary cinematic power,” a description better suited to films such as Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History, and Albert Serra’s The Story of My Death, against which Leviathan—despite its evident qualities—pales by comparison. The fact that Leviathan is Russia’s submission for the Foreign-Language Oscar pretty much says it all.
While Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour has many virtues (on a formal level especially), it also has weaknesses. One concern is the film’s obvious male-gaze. If you know Chantal Akerman’s Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974, made 40 years earlier!), you’ll know that there are no plump pouting lips or coquettish appeals to the camera/viewer, and the political subtexts are grounded and resonant. By comparison, the sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Colour are hokum. Far from confrontational or transgressive, they’re as honest and insightful as toothpaste commercials. But the film comes into its own as a depiction of a young person struggling with the complexities of adult life, even if the socio-political juxtapositions seem a tad calculated.
While Two Days, One Night is every inch a Dardenne film, for me it lacks the layered qualities of their best work. A sincere film with excellent performances and solid direction, ultimately it was too tract-like for my taste. Nevertheless, it had salient points to make, and it made them with assurance and conviction. However, if I can be forgiven for putting it this way, Two Days, One Night owes more to Ken Loach than Robert Bresson.
Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner is terrific on many levels, not least for the tour-de-force period detail and seamless digital enhancements. The performances are as good as one expects from seasoned veterans under Leigh’s assured direction, and of course it looks a picture. But for all that it’s not too far removed from a “quality” TV movie, and one can’t help wonder why it is widely touted as one of the “great” films of 2014.
You’ll be hard pressed to read anything but praise for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a staggeringly conventional film structured with one cliché after another. Populated not by characters so much as ciphers designed to push requisite buttons, it was a struggle to see the film as anything other than a technical exercise in multiplex film production.
On the other hand, Kornel Mundruczo’s outrageous White God amazed as much as it irritated. As subtle as a pratfall, you nevertheless have to credit the director for concocting such an audaciously original, if frequently risible political cartoon.
Actor Robin Wright barely survived the superficial travesty of Anne Fontaine’s Adore (aka Perfect Mothers, 2013), delivering a performance that hinted at what could have been a challenging (and genuinely transgressive) film. Instead, this bloodless titillation for the post-menopausal is as appealing as morning-after Chardonnay dregs.
Despite Paolo Sorrentino’s evident technical skill, I simply don’t understand why his work is so admired. While there are laughs to be had in This Must Be the Place (2011), and well staged sequences to enjoy, the film is typical of Sorrentino’s work in as much as a little goes a long way. I think I’ll just have to accept that his films fall within one of my many blind spots.
Of course, there were many films I missed this year, including Home From Home, Stations of the Cross, Force Majeure, Gloria, Viola, Timbuktu, Map to the Stars, The Immigrant, The Drop, What We Do in the Shadows, The Wonders, and the Wiseman documentaries (to mention only a few), but hopefully they will all turn up in some form in 2015.