To mix metaphors, this Top 15 list is dipping a toe back in the pool to get some cobwebs off. A slightly embellished list, these blurbs are by no means what I might have written had I been diligent; it was apparent in composing this that I need to write immediately after seeing a film.
I do have many ideas for upcoming pieces, including finally getting back to reviewing Northern Exposure (nearly the entire first short season accounted for here: pilot; ep. 2; ep. 3; eps. 4 & 5; ep. 6). I visited the primary filming location of Roslyn, WA two years ago, and will share my thoughts (and pictures) from that experience and why the show remains so indelible to me. I also have several video essays in mind – further expounding on The Tree of Life and how we ascribe meaning; separate pieces on the common thematic element in the films of Christopher Nolan and Spike Jonze; a piece on 12 Years a Slave and its specific use of framing by McQueen and Bobbitt; how the subtle work of Robbins and Deakins in Dead Man Walking gradually makes empathy tactile – and now having met Mr. Zoller Seitz, as well as Peter Labuza, Kevin B. Lee, and Tony Zhou, I feel compelled to try to join in this exciting branch of criticism.
I went in chronological order of viewing because I find it harder to rank art each year. (You can find a simple list of my 2013 favorites on Letterboxd.) And remember: posting a list of the top films of the year within that same year or even before three months pass in the next is a construct. Thank you for reading. I hope to share more soon, and with greater frequency.
The Grand Budapest Hotel Wes Anderson’s films since Rushmore have been on a spectrum of grief, and have at least in some part depicted the measures the characters take to keep it at bay, before ultimately having to process it. This film builds the grief throughout generations, and the different aspect ratios and actors giving way to each other is far subtler than expected.
Under the Skin The absolute dread of being an empowered woman in our world, with some “Other”-ing of the self for measure. I’ve hesitated revisiting it because of the ending.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier Possibly my favorite action film, and it’s about recognizing the danger of authority, and biting the hand that feeds: something rather unexpected and encouraging from Marvel. “Is this Riley?” – that brief, perfect exchange between two soldiers might not have been included in any drama, let alone a tentpole comicbook movie. Some of Johannson’s best work in 2014.
The Immigrant All-time consideration for best opening and closing shots, the story between them a tragic, unromantic portrayal of one of the tenets of America.
Actress Disclosure: I am Internet friends with filmmaker Robert Greene. This is a triumph of non-fiction narrative form. I still think of the last lines from time to time and shiver a little.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes “Just because they got their hands on some of our guns doesn't make them men”: perhaps my favorite line of the year, if not the decade so far. A blockbuster about maintaining peace and the untenable folly of this; that there will always be elements that emulate and destroy according to what has happened before. It definitely, inarguably needed more female (i.e. of both apes and humans) representation, but Koba’s damning “human work” lines really means “man’s work.” When’s the last time a single rifle being cocked stood out in what is marketed as an epic action film?
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her/Him One of the finer examples of discrepancies in narrative since Rashomon. As raw and pained and distant as it should be. Please note this is the proper version to see, not Them.
Whiplash A showdown that’s not a showdown, and a heroic moment that is rather simple but feels earned and triumphant while also signaling loss. (To all the bickering I’ve seen about this: I don’t think it’s about a sociopath training a sociopath; I do not like jazz at all but liked this, so go figure.)
Interstellar The end of my caring about cinephile elite posturing. (If you didn’t feel thrilled and moved at least a few times during this, maybe uncross your arms and stop being reductive, or cinema isn’t for you.) I loved that Nolan started an IMAX “event” film with solemn farm life, and that there was a tesseract sequence in a bookshelf between father and daughter.
Selma Change has come, in manner of dress and automobiles. The best film of the year, no question – and not because of the import of the present Black Lives Matter movement. That DuVernay mostly saves the heroic framing of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for moments that confuse and frustrate King’s colleagues (decision at Pettus bridge, debate after in the church) is a bold choice – most of the oration scenes are wide shots, showing the necessity of the people King spoke to, and for, and with. What this film reminds us of, is that Rev. Dr. King’s efforts, and those of his colleagues and supporters, were and are of kairos time, continually.
A Most Violent Year The ending is entirely on-the-nose, yes, but this is a great entry in the low-boiled crime drama genre. That highway chase – the city looming in the background, unreachable, is gorgeous.
Force Majeure A darkly comic treatise on masculinity, but not in the insufferable tendency of seemingly all acclaimed television in the last couple of years. Incredible cinematography. The less said the better.
Two Days, One Night Truly beautiful. I cannot remember the last time I immediately seized upon a premise (before it was properly established in the narrative), and felt rewarded throughout. Timur at the park: the first sign that faith will be restored. With this film coming after a few entries over the last few years – The Tree of Life, A Separation, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, This is Martin Bonner – I know my favorite cinema genre is compassion.
Beyond the Lights One of the better modern love stories. They each have their own doubts, their own narratives that don’t suit them, their own faults – and they express these to each other, ultimately for the better. I resisted the automatic love story because it seems movies always have to do this, heteronormative destiny and all that, but this seemed very real to me.
Life Itself Is there much more to be written than “Thumbs up”? A beautiful portrait; a must for anyone who loves film. “The movies are a machine that generates empathy.”