The Year in Review:
The Best of Film in 2014

Features, FILM
The cinematic year as remembered by our editors and contributors.

img_undertheskin8Tim Wong

Editor, The Lumière Reader

  1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013) Read More
  2. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2013)
  3. The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany, 2013)
  4. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray/Pacho Velez, USA/Nepal, 2013) Read More
  5. National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, USA) Read More
  6. Viola (Matías Piñeiro, Argentina, 2012)
  7. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland/Denmark, 2013)
  8. The Immigrant (James Gray, USA, 2013)
  9. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, China)
  10. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, USA) Read More

Festival Highlights: Exhibition, Hard to Be a God, Force Majeure, Fish & Cat, Story of My Death, Stations of the Cross.

In Cinemas: Boyhood, Gloria, Her, Interstellar, The Lego Movie, The Raid 2, Snowpiercer, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Whiplash.

Also Noteworthy: Blue Ruin, Dealin’ with Idiots, The Iron Ministry, Miss Zombie, A Story of Children and Film.

Best TV: the latest seasons of Rectify and Louie; Li’l Quinquin.

Discoveries and Revelations: Read More

I’m certain I would have banged the drum loudly about Black Coal, Thin Ice during the New Zealand International Film Festival had the screening I planned to attend not been cancelled due to technical issues. Diao Yinan’s Berlinale winner, which I recently caught up with on DVD, isn’t notable as a piece of narrative cinema, retreading the footsteps of too many police procedurals centered on burnt out cops, unsolved homicides, and victims who turn out to be prime suspects (among other foreseeable revelations). But like James Wan’s The Conjuring in 2013, Diao has shot the hell out of a genre film too easily demoted for its underlying formula. One of the best directed movies of the year, Diao transforms the undistinguished material through a series of unforgettable vignettes: the shootout in the beauty salon; the beguiling ice-skating sequences; and the bizarre fireworks display that concludes the film. These, among other anarchic signs of life such as possibly the first and only homage to Beau Travail you’ll see in Chinese cinema, are among my favourite movie scenes of the year. The best deadbeat Asian detective movie since Memories of Murder? Quite possibly yes.

Whereas Diao elevates the genre, David Fincher seems to all but miss the point of it. Part of the current wave of crime dramas and preposterous thrillers saturating both our television and cinema screens, Gone Girl is a victim of its own furrowed seriousness—though I would argue that this is precisely what makes it the comedy of the year. There’s no denying that the film’s real tension is located in its fraught tone, where it often feels like the absurdity of the content and the austerity of Fincher’s direction are at an impasse. There was no better metaphor for this than Ben Affleck’s awkward shit-eating grin, an uneasy moment of hesitation between two states of being.

I suppose this is why Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin is such a breath of fresh air, both as a definitive self-parody of the director’s typically confronting cinema, and as a hilarious send-up of the modern policier and its many over-egged tropes. Produced as a mini-series, I understand this is being released theatrically in 2015. I’d include it in this year’s top ten, if not for the fact that parts three and four have yet to be released online. (Fandor is drip-feeding episodes of Li’l Quinquin weekly in December.)

After initial indifference, I’ve come around to The Immigrant. One piece of advice: view the film not through the perceived notion that it is James Gray’s version of The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America, but rather, his evocation of silent and pre-code melodrama, specifically the films of Frank Borzage. It also reminded me of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s great Flowers of Shanghai. You can read more about The Immigrant and other films mentioned in this top ten here.

img_seriousgames2Brannavan Gnanalingam

Editor-at-Large, The Lumière Reader

1. Serious Games + Parallel (Harun Farocki, Germany, 2009-2014) Read More
This was unfortunately unexpected. Farocki’s films, heavily lauded, had barely made an appearance in New Zealand before 2014, and it took his death for a mini-retrospective of his work to be exhibited. Serious Games is a brilliant, clear-eyed depiction of how reality is reduced by language, and its telling effects in terms of how people approach and deal with warfare. Parallel is less brutal in its analysis of simulation versus reality through the changes in computer graphics. It slyly suggests just how much the complexity of our experience of the world is reduced to crude signs and symbols (i.e. language).

2. Goodbye to Language 3D (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
Godard had similar concerns when he set out to make Goodbye to Language, trying to capture a sense of experiencing the world without language, experiencing the world like his dog. While he ultimately fails in that respect (though in the screening I went to, someone actually sprinted out of the theatre and never came back, so maybe not…), the film is far less cynical than it sounds. Godard gleefully messes with the ‘new’ 3D artform to reveal its limitations. Not only does Goodbye to Language almost re-contextualise Godard’s ’60s experiments with language, but it’s a bloody funny piece of contemporary rabble-rousing. It’s hardly surprising that this revolutionary film came from an irascible old master. Then again, Goodbye to Language has the energy of a film made by someone just starting off.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2013)
In a year of veterans pulling off great films, Scorsese has made one of the more troubling American films of recent times. The Wolf of Wall Street has the potential to be one of Scorsese’s more misunderstood films. His Wall Street is populated by the same type of gangster present in Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, and writer Terence Winter’s Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. The Wolf of Wall Street, however, is arguably more frightening than all of those. Whereas the gangsters, despite the cruelty they mete out, still live by a code of ethics and morals (however displaced that might be), Scorsese presents Wall Street and the American Dream as almost entirely devoid of morality in the quest for the American Dream, with the GFC the natural consequence of such behaviour. It’s brutally funny, DiCaprio is outstanding, and it must be said, its amorality deeply moral.

4. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013)
Glazer’s deeply unsettling film has an uncomprehending alien (Scarlett Johansson) start off much like a baby, unable to comprehend the world and emotions around her. She then begins to understand and learns emotion, and acknowledges herself as an object. It is this recognition that becomes her own undoing. It’s desperately bleak and beautiful.

5. Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden) Read More
Östlund’s hilarious yet pointed account of a marriage breakdown is structured around his protagonist’s failure to deal with a force majeure event. Making great use of its alpine setting, Östlund presents his characters as insects in amongst an impassive (and dangerous) environment. In its depiction of ritualised codes and expectations of gender, it is extremely funny.

6. Our Sunhi (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) Read More
Hong can’t make a bad film for me: he is contemporary cinema’s best chronicler of relationships and our ability to sell ourselves short. Again, extremely funny, and told in Hong’s typical unobtrusive style, I can only hope he keeps on making ‘em the way he does.

7. Story of My Death (Albert Serra, Spain/France, 2013)
A completely unique film, Story of My Death captures a strange crepuscular zone between rationalism and irrationality, and suggests that we’re likely to settle happily (and eerily) on the latter.

8. Hard to be a God (Aleksei German Sr, Russia, 2013)
Yet another unique film, though this time far more physical than Story of My Death. It’s of excrement, mud, urine, and blood; it’s hard to describe the experience of watching this film, but I certainly needed a shower afterwards.

9. The Reunion (Anna Odell, Sweden, 2013) Read More
A brutal dissection of nostalgia and the way we re-write history. It’s a banal story, which uses this banality to incredibly potent effect.

10. Fish & Cat (Shahram Mokri, Iran, 2013)
A hypnotic one-shot zombie film from Iran. It’s as good as that previous sentence sounds.

Close Call: Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision.

Other Close Contenders: The Babadook, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, National Gallery, Particle Fever, Pulp: a Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets, Suzanne, We Are the Best!, What We Do in the Shadows, The Wind Rises, Winter Sleep.

Yet to See (hint, hint to the NZIFF: From What is Before (Diaz), Hill of Freedom (Hong), Horse Money (Costa), Jauja (Alonso), Journey to the West (Tsai), Li’l Quinquin (Dumont), The Look of Silence (Oppenheimer), Phoenix (Petzold), The Second Game (Porumboiu), The Tribe (Slaboshpytskiy), and I never got around to seeing Boyhood (Linklater)—a long list to go!

img_darkhorse2Alexander Bisley

Editor-at-Large, The Lumière Reader

  • The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson, NZ)
  • The Drop (Michaël R. Roskam, USA)
  • The Humbling (Barry Levinson, USA)*
  • Kabuchiko Love Hotel (Ryuichi Hiroki, Japan)*
  • Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK)
  • A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, Sweden)*
  • Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania)
  • Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)
  • While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, USA)*
  • The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson, USA)

Unable to See: Top Five. Ridiculous, like Under the Skin, it’s not getting a NZ release.

*Viewed at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals.

img_boyhood4Jacob Powell

Contributing Editor, The Lumière Reader

1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2013) Read More
Boyhood sings a dual melody which perfectly blends the intimate into the epic, the specific into the universal. A synergy of performance, production, and subject make this one of Linklater’s greatest achievements and one of the finest pieces of cinema I’ve experienced.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA, 2013)
The Coens are totally on my emotional level with this film. Inside Llewyn Davis digs me right in the gut, so hard. So hard.

3. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA) Read More
Getting its creep on right from the get go, It Follows blends ostensibly competing sensibilities being one part supernatural horror, one part slacker drama, and one part psychological creeper. Mitchell and co. achieve synergy with this odd recipe delivering an inventively creepy and relationally insightful feature.

4. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 2013)
In what other work of cinema could you observe students debating changing socio-economic class structures, an army veterans student group on campus ‘manoeuvres’, research testing robotics-assisted walking suits on a paraplegic subject, the work of the single remaining lawn maintenance staff member, or an astrophysicist-researcher proclaiming “Measuring dark energy is… difficult”? From where I’m sitting At Berkeley is four hours very well spent.

5. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, USA/UK, 2013)
Aside from a trenchant reminder of the kinds of fucked up histories our collective society is built upon—reflect upon the international outsourcing of ‘slavery’ we now engage in to drive down production costs and retain profit/power status quo—12 Years a Slave shows me, once again, how brilliant McQueen and Sean Bobbitt are at composing and holding a frame. Some artists do make decent filmmakers!

6. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)
The Dardennes Two Days, One Night is both a literal and metaphorically painful march through one woman’s weekend attempt to save her job in light of a generally screwed economy for all. The film rides high on Marion Cotillard’s physically wrought performance: an arresting display of vulnerable humanity.

7. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013)
Science fiction doesn’t come much more appealingly lo-fi than Jonathan Glazer’s slow burn creeper Under the Skin. Despite touting a Hollywood A-Lister in the (unnamed) lead role—a mesmerizingly ‘flat’ performance by Scarlett Johansson—the film shares more cinematic DNA with abstract sci-fi thrillers such as Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond the Black Rainbow or Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color than with higher profile sci-fi fare like The Avengers or Spike Jonze’s Her.

8. The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans, Indonesia/USA)
Removed from the physical/narrative confines of the first film, The Raid 2 is undoubtedly more complex in its story scope but I don’t think this deflates the action so much as it changes the pacing/rhythm whilst balancing a range of tones. Evans and co. successfully fuse elements of Tarantinoesque characterisation (‘Hammer Girl’ and ‘Baseball Bat Man’ would’ve been at home in Kill Bill) and the Shakespearean narrative breadth of gruelling Korean genre films (think Park Chan-wook’s ‘Vengeance trilogy’, Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life, and perhaps most particularly Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea) into The Raid 2’s indigenous action core.

9. What We Do in the Shadows (Taika Waititi/Jemaine Clement, NZ)
With a premise which seems best geared to a 15 minute comedy sketch, Waititi and Clement beat the odds and turn out a feature length film which is a riotous laugh right from its mockumentary opening through to its post-credit closing gag. What We Do in the Shadows may well be a comedy of errors dissecting pop-cultural mores and unlikely friendship, but ultimately it’s the story of a regular guy and the difference he can make by just being himself. It’s the story of Stu… who does some kind of work in IT… Stu.

10. Land Ho! (Martha Stephens/Aaron Katz, USA) Read More
A septuagenarian road-buddy-comedy! Katz, as with other ‘mumblecore’ associated filmmakers, usually makes films about people from within a decade of his own age group such as the teens of his 2006 feature debut Dance Party, USA and the college students/graduates from 2010’s Cold Weather. To see him apply the same naturalistic, dialogue-primary techniques to a film about a couple of older gentlemen is quite refreshing. This change was evident in the senior-dominated mid-week full house in which my viewing occurred. I wonder how differently we experienced the film?

Best of the Rest: Blue Ruin, Guardians of the Galaxy, Her, Jimmy’s Hall, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Kung Fu Elliot, Leviathan, Maidan, Maps to the Stars, Nebraska, Nightcrawler, Short Term 12, The Skeleton Twins, Snowpiercer, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Winter Sleep.

Best New Zealand Films: Over and above the top notch Waititi/Clement mockumentary featured in the main list, the following New Zealand features I caught in 2014—and there are several notable films I missed including highly regarded comedy-horror Housebound—I felt deserved a particular mention (listed alphabetically):

The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson)
Anchored by standout performances from Cliff Curtis and Boy wonder James Rolleston, Robertson’s The Dark Horse deftly walks the line between its dark and uplifting dramatic spaces without overstating its case. Robertson’s direction and and writing provide good structure for performances which do justice to the story of this colourful character.

The Dead Lands (Toa Fraser)
A genre film, tasked to thrill and entertain, telling a distinctly Maori tale, and whose dialogue is entirely in te reo Maori has long been overdue. Rolleston (again) stands tall in the lead role of Hongi and despite the odd flailing delivery by some less fluent cast members, hearing te reo spoken for the duration of a feature film gave me goosebumps. Add solid action and an intriguing anachronistic, electronic driven score from Don McGlashan, and I’m glad to say that with The Dead Lands Fraser and co. have created a milestone New Zealand action film.

Jake (Doug Dillaman)
Independent in the fullest sense (as in self-funded and distributed), Hybrid Motion Pictures’ Jake is a more polished and coherent feature than you might expect which skirts the edge of sci-fi in its identity bending premise. Through a smart script and solidl acting, Dillaman and co. bring a strong visual sensibility and tonal diversity which makes for compelling and occasionally surprising viewing.

Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (Florian Habicht)
This may be Florian’s first foray into the music documentary subgenre, but rest assured his signature focus on the everyday oddness of people underpins this portrait of Jarvis Cocker and band Pulp. Like his previous films did with Kaikohe (Kaikohe Demolition) and New York City (Love Story), Pulp glories in the geographic and population locality of Sheffield to build a picture of the band both in and through its context. There is a level of sophistication in the editing and construction of the feature which is belied by Habicht’s typically raw visual aesthetic and on top of the all else the film has to offer, the music is fantastic.

Best Catch-Up Viewing: The Astrologer, Barton Fink, Battle Royale, The Counselor, Funny Games (2007 remake), Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Mud, Primer, Somewhere, Zero Dark Thirty.

img_windrisesDoug Dillaman

Contributing Editor, The Lumière Reader

1. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2013)
Hayao Miyazaki’s swansong is also his masterpiece. Is it a paean to the glory of human creativity or an indictment of the blindness of creators to the human costs of their work? Simply: yes.

2. National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, USA) Read More
What separates a good Wiseman from a great Wiseman from a masterpiece may be principally about the viewer, but the mosaic structure of this film outlines an approach to interpreting not just its subject but itself that engages more deeply than any work of his I’ve seen. The shortest three hours I spent in a cinema this year.

3. Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden) Read More
“Like Haneke, but funny.” Impossible but true. The first drama I saw at NZIFF was the best. Due for a return trip to cinemas in 2015, it’s well worth checking on the big screen for its vast tableaus, to say nothing of meriting a second glance to notice precisely what happens during its instigating incident.

4. Under the Skin/Her (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013)
Scarlett Johannson proved her natural milieu: playing the inhuman. Glazer’s film has more moments of pure transcendence, while Spike Jonze’s is a masterwork of design tip to toe. An honorable mention to the third inhuman Johannson turn, Luc Besson’s Lucy, one of the least reputable great times I had in the cinema this year.

5. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA)
I wish I had made this film. Mitchell’s from my neck of the woods (suburban Detroit), and maybe his channeling of shared mood, memory, and anxiety increased my appreciation, but I’ll stand by my assertion that it’s the smartest, scariest, and most well directed horror film of the year.

6. The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders/Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, France/Italy) Read More
I have more formal problems with this film than any other on my list, but both as documentation of Salgado’s work and narrativisation of his personal story, it wrecked and inspired me in equal measure. Essential viewing for any person who struggles with how to find a meaningful life in a cruel universe.

7. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea/USA/France, 2013) Read More
A second viewing only deepened my appreciation of Bong’s formal mastery and his perverse choices, while also allowing me to appreciate the brilliance of Tilda Swinton’s Thatcherite performance.

8. Ida (Pawel Pawilkowski, Poland, 2013)
Bless you, Curious Films, for having the faith to release an unheralded subtitled arthouse film in May with no starpower. I’m rapt that their risk was rewarded with strong local box office, and hope that other distributors will take similar risks on films that escape the film festival’s programming. Serious, luminous, rapturous.

9. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA)
It’s easy to take Wes Anderson for granted, or dismiss him. But beyond the ruthless symmetry, immaculate eye for composition, ludicrously detailed production design, casual pet violence, and overstuffed cast of A-listers is a raw vein of emotion desperate to surface, and no performer has better found the balance between entertaining theatrical artifice and genuine pathos in Anderson’s work than Ralph Fiennes, an actor I’ve never cared much for who somehow gave the performance of the year.

10. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, USA)
It portends to be a tale of an aspiring musician and his taskmaster conductor, but the text is barely sub: pipping 50 Shades of Grey to release, there’s unlikely to be a more compelling tale of the complex waters of submission and dominance to play in mainstream cinemas in 2015. (The equivocal language is because Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland will hopefully return to New Zealand screens in 2015 with The Duke of Burgundy.) Those who take the film as an endorsement of J.K. Simmons’s symphonic brutality are missing the point; those who aren’t exhilarated by the cataclysmic finale, a wordless crescendo of sound and emotion, I can only assume are missing their eyes and ears.

Nineteen Alternate #10s: Big Hero 6, Borgman, Boyhood, Edge of Tomorrow, Inside Llewyn Davis, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Manakamana, Nebraska, Nightcrawler, Night Moves, The Skeleton Twins, Suzanne, 12 Years A Slave, Two Days, One Night, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, Wild Talesplus locally unreleased The One I Love and The Immigrant.

Bumpy Rides but Unmissable: The Babadook, Finding Vivian Maier, Gone Girl, Goodbye To Language 3D, Hard to Be a God, Interstellar, Nymphomaniac, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Raid 2.

NZIFF 2013 Victory Lap (aka ineligible but listworthy): Ernest & Celestine, The Great Beauty, Mistaken For Strangers, The Past, Stories We Tell.

Best of Aotearoa: Housebound, REALITi, Unnatural History, What We Do in the Shadows.

img_whatwedointheshadowsMohamad Atif Slim

Contributor, The Lumière Reader

Fortunately seen: What We Do in the Shadows (Taika Waititi/Jemaine Clement, NZ) is a smirkful, mirthful, sanguine delight, both a compliment and a complement to the Kiwi sense of humour. (I, however, question the editing of the U.S. release trailer, which seems intent on revealing all of the film’s best bits at once!) Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, USA) is a (relatively) modestly-crafted film of run-of-the-mill originality but ingenious novelty, a less artful (but thoroughly entertaining) Run Lola Run in space for a new generation, with its own surprising depth of maturity. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson takes a flamboyant jaunt into a fascinating world of bygone European-esque hotelier nostalgia, further romanticised in flourishes of colour and quirk; an adventure film of sorts, and an Anderson classic. Finally, a NZIFF gold worth mentioning: It Follows has a rather disappointingly B-grade opening, but unfolds as a brilliant take on the succubus mythology, filmed and conceptualised with dark subliminal horror trudging at a patient pace. A scene where the camera does a 360 degrees pan at a college campus is absolutely frightening.

Unfortunately seen: Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France), a histrionic film far too involved in its superficial, incongruent, stereotypical depiction of working class depression, and almost nauseatingly littered with goosebump-raising clichés that could only be borne of the addled, overworked brains of a melancholic poet rummaging too hard in the dark for a bon mot and failing spectacularly. Felt like a sham, which is an utter shame coming from the Dardennes.

Regrettably missed or pending: Boyhood, The Dark Horse, Force Majeure, Leviathan, The Lunchbox.

img_boyhood3Nathan Joe

Contributor, The Lumière Reader

1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2013)
The culmination of Linklater’s career.

2. Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, France, 2013)
So much more than gratuitous lesbian sex scenes.

3. Life Itself (Steve James, USA)
A compassionate portrait of the man who is partially responsible for my love of film.

4. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France) Read More
The most blood-curdling film of 2014.

5. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, USA)
Gay BDSM Black Swan. Or, the second most blood-curdling film of 2014.

6. Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 (Lars Von Trier, Germany/Belgium, 2013)
Lars Von Trier at his playful best. Shame about the second part…

7. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013) Read More
Cinematic hypnosis.

8. Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, USA, 2013)
A taste of ambition.

9. Love is Strange (Ira Sachs, USA) Read More
Ozu in New York City.

10. Finsterworld (Frauke Finsterwalder, Germany, 2013) Read More
The best film nobody saw.

Dishonourable Mention: Interstellar.

The above selections encompass theatrical, festival, exhibition, and DVD/Blu-ray screenings. All films were viewed in 2014, irrespective of their original release dates.