So, every ten years the British Film Institute releases two top ten lists of the best films ever made– one list as chosen by film critics and scholars (generally academics with no filmmaking experience), and another list as chosen by directors (practitioners of the craft). The differences in the two resulting lists is always interesting. The first list focuses squarely on content, while the second takes form and aesthetic into more significant consideration. For this year's films, since I have worked as both a critic and a director, I'd like to offer something similar below. Here are two lists with brief comments on the films.
Ten Best Films of 2014
1. Birdman (Inarritu). Trailer.
My friend and I walked out of this ecstatic, convinced we'd seen the best expression on the creative dilemma since 8 1/2. While I wouldn't quite drop such rhapsodic superlatives now, there's no doubt this is one of the great achievements in the medium and something which will remain in the conversation for decades. The conversation between Keaton and the theatre critic is priceless, and like so many other scenes, says so much about the nature of artmaking, looking at art, and looking at the self– all through a lens at once comedic and thought-provoking. How do we define ourselves? Do we use the opinions of others to determine our self-worth? What is it we're chasing? Relevant questions for all. More of my thoughts on the film here.
2. Interstellar (Nolan). Trailer.
I wanted to write a review of this for the site upon its release but couldn't, because it resists parsing into words. Like Kubrick's 2001, it's an experience more than anything else. Nolan communicates a grand vision through an exhilarating series of images and sounds, taking advantage of the medium's ability to transcend mere language in how it gets through to us. The hefty runtime is dense with ideas and one-of-a-kind visuals, all anchored by a father-daughter relationship– this is what allows Nolan to rise above other sci-fi work; like Inception, the core of his films are not concepts, but probing, troubled human relationships we can all relate to. Bravo to Nolan for having all the female characters be intelligent engineers with things on their mind besides supporting men!
3. Ida (Pawlikowski). Trailer.
A nun about to take her vows discovers her parents were Jewish. Told largely through images instead of words, she embarks on a journey of considering different ways of living. Much more than another person's-faith-system-collapses movie; those are easier to accomplish than what Pawlikowski is doing here. To call lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska luminous would be an understatement. She lives the role quietly, trusting the camera to pick up on the subtle nuances. Similar to A Most Violent Year in its choice of portraying of a thoughtful, interior protagonist. A transcendent piece, and one of a kind– I urge you to check out the trailer, which offers a good idea of the experience of watching the film.
4. A Most Violent Year (Chandor). Trailer.
Most films are about extroverts, as the inherently exterior medium of film more easily communicates such a mindset. To encounter a film about a quiet man who thinks carefully before speaking or doing is a rare treat. One is reminded for this reason and others of Pacino's Michael Corleone in The Godfather, although the protagonist here has different ethical views. The film, which is not violent, is more than its trailer suggests. Isaac, playing the lead, is magnetic as a heating-oil businessman trying to get through New York City's most violent year (1981) without using violence. Chastain, as his wife, is aces as usual. Abel (Isaac) and Julian, the truck driver, are opposites in a way; one believes in himself, and the other doesn't, and they end up in very different places. A pitch-perfect evocation of the time period, and a gem of a screenplay, which contains nuggets of wisdom– or not– that you'll mull over for days.
5. Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, Wes). Trailer.
The "Happy Great Film" is rare. Most great films traffic in heavy subject matter, and wrestle with challenging themes which are not always pleasant. By contrast, most lighthearted films skimp on both substance and style. Anderson's work represents a meeting point, as they engage our minds and eyes while also leaving us feeling not just cathartic by the end, but terrific. The narrative is like much of Anderson's others– carefully constructed images and characters, drenched in artifice, such that we are blindsided by moments of unexpected emotional honesty. Though it is like his other films, it stands above them; he has fine-tuned every aspect of his approach into a science, and the ingredients blend perfectly here. There's a shot of Saoirse Ronan looking into the frame that destroys me.
6. Whiplash (Chazelle). Trailer.
A musician friend told me no film more accurately captures her experience studying music than this one– one of the more frightening statements I've heard. It's a chamber piece with a specific focus– the working relationship between a dedicated student and his brutal instructor. Both believe in sacrificing everything in the name of perfection, and the havoc and artistry this wreaks is the film's focus. Incredibly, the writing and performances are able to get us to sympathize with both sides of the coin: that the brutal, single-minded pursuit of perfection destroys lives, and also the only way to achieve said perfection.
7. Inherent Vice (Anderson, P. T.). Trailer.
The aura of melancholy pervading this film isn't a sad one, but rather a wistful sense of longing, a remembrance for a time when things were simpler. What a curious mixture of humor, whimsy, reflection, and the pangs of loss. In an interview Anderson recently suggested to Vice that the film is about a man pining for an old flame even as he knows they're not quite right for each other; who can't sympathize with that?
Like The Master, Anderson has offered something here which I'm sure will reveal itself over repeat viewings; I'm always disoriented after watching something immediately after reading the book upon which it was read (tip: don't finish reading Harry Potter IV, or Wuthering Heights, while standing in line for their respective films! Nothing else kills the experience quite so!). Inherent Vice is uncanny at replicating the act of reading Pynchon– you don't know what's going on, but each scene is compelling in its own right. There is a warmth which pervades Anderson's films, and I think it stems from how much he genuinely likes his characters, no matter their behavior.
8. Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night) (Dardenne Bros.). Trailer.
Most films are about either the very rich or the very poor; where are all the films about people who drive Honda Civics?
I'm pleased to see another portrait of the working class by the Dardennes. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has two days to convince her coworkers to convince each of her coworkers to give up their bonuses so she can remain employed. This ranks among their best yet. The premise is basic but naturally relatable and compelling. This is the Dardennes' first time working with a name actor, and Cotillard shines as always. The performance is above all an excellent portrait of depression, and how it inhibits a person from taking action or otherwise believing in themselves. The camera achieves an artful artlessness, candid but professional, minimizing an emphasis on form, making us feel like we're there, walking alongside her as she goes from coworker to coworker, begging for her livelihood. However the film chooses to end would be a statement of sorts, and it couldn't conclude more perfectly. The final shot fills me with a deep, earned joy.
9. Mr. Turner (Leigh). Trailer.
In a year overflowing with hagiographies, this is by far the best. It's not a bloated birth-to-death piece, nor an infomercial of a biopic succumbing to "greatest hits" syndrome. It is simply us, the viewer, spending time with Turner, the great British painter, as he goes about his daily life. It doesn't let plot get in the way of film's great ability to transport us to someone else's present. The film is freed from the artifice of narrative, conflict and resolution. Basically we're just "hanging out with" Turner, as it were, as does things like buy paint and visit the countryside. What better way to get a sense of who a man is? I can think of no film more effective at situating us in a past time period. We're not told dates or facts about Turner's life; we just observe. Spall's performance is a career-best. The scene of the final preparations before the gallery opening is one of the more meaningful scenes I've come across as an artist, in its conveyance of what it feels like to make and share art in the company of others.
10. Foxcatcher (Miller). Trailer.
What a bizarre series of events. There's no other film quite like this one– Miller's previous entries don't prepare us for the atonal uncomfortableness which infuses the picture. Channing Tatum and Steve Carell give astonishing dramatic performances with apparent ease, at a level neither's career has prepared us for. The film offers no opinion of what it shows, but unlike American Sniper, which does the same, it seems greatly aware of its implications, and more thoughtfully considered.
Note: I have not seen Leviathan, Force Majeure, Nightcrawler, or Winter Sleep.
Ten Best Directed Films of 2014
1. Birdman (Inarritu). Trailer.
Okay, I guess there is a little overlap here. Inarritu's decision to design the film as one continuous shot transforms it into something else completely– a mobius strip of a movie, a gaze which never stops, but simply turns or glides on to something else, like life. As I've written elsewhere, the unbroken take is one of the last hallmarks of truth-telling in cinema, because it is so hard to fake. We watch in awe as these actors really do act their hearts out, make their marks, and all the rest for fifteen-plus minute stretches. Kristen Thompson once wrote that many of her favorite films turn out to be animated films, not because she prefers that medium, but because animated films require so much preplanning and design. There is no room for looseness or improvisation. According to Thompson, this level of attention generally results in great films. The same holds true for Birdman, because nothing could be cut out or otherwise fixed in editing– everything had to work during the moment it was shot and forever after. Lubezki seems headed to a second consecutive Oscar win (after last year's Gravity), and it will be richly deserved. The mobile, probing nature of the camera, the achingly rich and beautiful colors... I can't believe this small, idiosyncratic film has turned into the Oscar frontrunner. How rare it is, that the actual best film of the year wins best picture.
2. Gone Girl (Fincher). Trailer.
Fincher is such a consummate craftsman. He knows exactly what he wants, and he achieves his intention with a precise, skillful confidence that's exhilarating to watch. More thoughts of mine here.
3. Blackhat (Mann). Trailer.
Another exacting director who knows exactly what he wants to say, Michael Mann is once again in top form here, in another portrait of an introspective protagonist (it really is the year for that, isn't it?) involved in underworld crime, this time from the international cyberattack angle. Like any great director, but moreso, Mann's camera is where it is always for a reason, to tell us something further about the psychology of the characters. His lens is more subjective, often sharing in a character's perspective by looking from behind their head; the handheld compositions are at once loose and highly composed. All the characters are highly intelligent, educated adults, and this, in combination with Mann's penchant for avoiding exposition, make us lean forward. The jargon goes unexplained, and we're left to piece things together; the film expects a lot from the viewer, and for those who are up for it, it's quite a treat.
Mann maximizes the effect of silence; among my favorite moments is Hemsworth taking a moment alone, savoring the sensation of being out on the open tarmac after years of prison. Mann utilizes the digital camera to achieve things impossible with film– notice the depth of field and use of long lenses at night, the camera's ability to capture the magenta night sky and see into the dark corners. Mann is the Louis Sullivan of filmmakers– as Sullivan wasn't afraid to use exposed steel in buildings instead of disguising it as masonry like everyone else, Mann uses digital to do what only digital can do, and celebrates the medium, instead of trying to hide it and make it filmlike, thereby dooming it forever to being second-rate. Refer to this link for more thoughts on digital from the highly articulate director.
4. Inherent Vice (Anderson, P.T.). Trailer.
The content may have gone right over my head on first viewing, but the aesthetics didn't. It reads to me like a love letter to film– note the subtlety of colors, the skin tones and magic hour beach scenes, the grain jumping about, making the picture alive. Such things, as you know, warm my heart. Anderson's juggling of so many tones while maintaining a cohesive style linking it all is impressive. He makes the flat 1.85:1 frame, easily a visual bore, a thing of beauty. He takes the bold route of shooting many scenes in a single shot, often in a slow push-in, allowing us to take in the performances on a more pure, direct level.
5. Ida (Pawlikowski). Trailer.
You can't not notice the unusual use of the square 1.33:1 frame. I find it limiting to use, preferring scope myself, but Pawlikowski gets so much mileage out of it, offering composition after composition of startling and thought-provoking grace. It may only be eighty minutes, but each minute says so much. The black-and-white only heightens the beauty of the images, while also reflecting Anna's stark lifestyle. When all the elements are in place, and everything is so finely tuned that the simple two word phrase– "and then?"– has the impact that it does, well, that's great direction. I'm convinced that Ida makes her decision during the moment that phrase is uttered.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, Wes). Trailer.
Another rare use of 1.33:1. Anderson uses that ratio during the portions of the film when that ratio would have been in use, and resorts to his more customary 2.35:1 during the few sections that occur later, during the sixties. He seems to be moving beyond his schtick of sideways tracking shots recording action moving parallel to the picture plane (though I have no complaints against just that). There is a real economy to the editing here, as the jokes reel off the actor's tongues in perfectly timed moments. The square frame, despite its natural claustrophobic tendencies, is able to take in the opulent vastness of the titular hotel with no difficulty under Anderson's gaze. The set and costume design are also worthy of note, spilling over with pink and red; a feast for the eyes.
7. Interstellar (Nolan). Trailer.
Nolan has said he shoots on film not out of nostalgia, but because it generates a better image. I agree. The greater tonal range and resolution are in abundant evidence here, particularly when viewed on 70mm (for you numbers hounds, 70mm film approximates 18k lines of resolution in digital, as opposed to 2k lines or the high-end 4k digi cameras). Nice strong compositions and classic rule of thirds in the wide scope frame; he chooses to use the IMAX cameras not just for moments of obvious visual beauty (the wormhole, the new planets), but also for emotional moments of equal import (leaving the daughter) and even for difficult handheld work (driving through the cornfield). His commitment to getting the best possible imagistic experience to the viewer is unparalleled. I also marvel at his ability to communicate. How is it that Nolan, without using dialogue, is able to get across that we have just passed through a wormhole, though he doesn't know you or I, and we've never done that ourselves and don't know what it would look like?
8. Whiplash (Chazelle). Trailer.
For a 107 minute film about people in rooms yelling or banging on pieces of leather and metal, Chazelle makes the most of it. Lots of narrow depth of field, and great staccato editing during the drumming sequences, particularly during the finale, which is one of the better recent movie endings I'm aware of. He doesn't make unmotivated camera moves. Also, a note on the performances. Simmons is not just excellent because of how intense he is; look at how he plays the sympathetic moments as well– the monologue at the end, the moment with the child early on. A fully dimensional character. As for Miles Teller, I'm reminded of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. He was new, untested in such a demanding role, not attractive... and supremely talented. Teller's performance is one for the ages. That's his actual blood on the drums. I imagine we'll see a lot of him as the years wear on.
9. A Most Violent Year (Chandor). Trailer.
Chandor is not afraid to go for some serious understatement. He lets the silences and quiet exchanges speak for themselves, not interfering with the camera; he favors a locked down frame here, a la Fincher, observing the proceedings with a precision not unlike that of the protagonist's. Chandor uses a scope frame even for this intimate story, lending it a greater visual gravitas than it would otherwise have. I'm partial to the muted blue-green-yellow color scheme, and the expansive use of the wide frame– people on either end, Abel dominating the compositions, arrangements which tell us whose in control; clean, classic, and unwatchable in anything besides the original aspect ratio.
10. Transformers (Bay). Trailer.
Don't watch this movie. Please. Don't watch it unless you're an cinematographer, editor, or, uh, a teenage boy. People underestimate the skill necessary to achieve the shots Bay manages here and elsewhere. In the way that Nic Cage simply likes working, seemingly regardless of the material, I get the impression Bay doesn't care about content, but just likes to shoot, and shoot he does. Forget the numbingly abysmal narrative; this is a return to the days of early silent cinema, when the medium was in its birth, and people would go to projection houses to watch footage of things like trains flying toward the screen and babies swimming. "It is a visual and therefore, a visceral, betrayal," John Malkovich says in a scene from Transformers 3, clearly revealing Bay's belief to the power of the image. Note also in this film the loving mentions of motion picture film and references to classic films like Paris, Texas.
The compositions are dynamic in the extreme, pushing the possibilities of the frame, steeped in color and movement; the editing is positively electric, with kinetic motion flows juxtaposed with every new shot. His camera, like that of Max Ophuls, basically never stops moving, and to witness this or his magnum opus, Bad Boys II (shot on film), is to take part in an achingly beautiful visual ballet, impeccably crafted, with a level of skill all the more noticeable when applied to such completely bloated, vacuous content. I used to edit films with Bay movies playing on a monitor off to one side, as inspiration for photographic and editing possibilities. Again, it's an acquired taste. I think I'm the only person to have Transformers on my shelf, right next to my depressing Swedish movies from the sixties. I encourage you not to waste your time on it– unless you're curious, or one of the three categories mentioned above!
Thoughts on 2014's other major (and a few not so major) releases.