By Alan Mattli
There goes another year filled to the brim with movies, good and bad (though, as opposed to previous years, I didn’t seek out that many bad ones in 2014), and it just wouldn’t feel like a Christmas week if I didn’t count down my favourite ones. As usual, this list comes with a caveat: being Swiss, I pick my films based on their Swiss cinema release, which is why you will find movies you might recognise from the 2013-14 Oscar campaign on here, while current contenders like, say, Birdman, The Imitation Game, Unbroken, Inherent Vice, or American Sniper are ineligible for this year’s selection. So without further ado, here are my top ten (plus a few more) favourite films of 2014.
12 Years a Slave
In keeping with his two previous features, Hunger and Shame, British director Steve McQueen does not seek to offer his audience a comforting worldview in his stirring adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave, the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. 12 Years a Slave stands tall as one of the best slavery films of all time, uncompromisingly and relentlessly showing the outrageous reality of slave societies, where even those who treat their slaves well are complicit in one of world history’s great injustices.
Less of an outright comedy than his terrific debut The Guard (whose themes run deeper than its jolly façade lets on), John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary chronicles the final week in the life of Father James, played to perfection by the towering Brendan Gleeson, a County Sligo priest who perfectly embodies Christian virtue, contrasting the conniving nature of his parishioners. While it is undoubtedly funny, the film’s philosophical range is much larger than that of a mere foul-mouthed comedy, pondering questions of faith and human imperfection in the grand tradition of Dreyer, Bresson, and Buñuel.
It may not be quite on a par with such David Fincher masterpieces as Fight Club or The Social Network, but this rousing adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s eponymous bestseller offers ample evidence of Fincher’s qualities as a filmmaker. As one event after the other that led to the disappearance of Amy Elliott-Dunne (Rosamund Pike) and the police investigation against her husband (Ben Affleck) is uncovered, Gone Girl – written, shot, scored, and edited with a surgeon’s precision – expertly moves between Hitchcockian and Almodóvaresque transgression, keeping you on the edge of your seat for its whole two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
Including a big-budget franchise blockbuster on a best-of list may seem like quite an odd choice, but I think it is warranted in the case of the third instalment of the Hunger Games film series. Mockingjay – Part 1 stresses the points I enjoyed most about its two equally engaging predecessors – careful character development and world-building that quietly emphasises the source material’s allegorical edge. This is a franchise that I believe can defy its young adult fiction stigma and become a cinematic dystopia that will be subjected to serious study in the future.
Speaking of dystopias, here’s a bizarre, surreal, utterly radical one. For his English-language debut, Bong Joon-ho, the Korean director best known for 2003’s Memories of Murder and 2006’s The Host, has adapted a French graphic novel set in a new ice age where the remainder of humanity lives in a train eternally circling the frozen Earth. Centering around a group of rebels from the derelict back of the train trying to reach the powerful front, Snowpiercer is a biting satire about the ultimate futility of small-scale rebellions and the need for revolutions targeting the reigning (capitalist) system.
It doesn’t feel right not mentioning this one – not because I enjoyed it for what it was intended to be but because of what it ended up being. Winter’s Tale is a glorious train wreck of a romantic Valentine’s Day movie, indulging in a would-be love story for the ages involving angels, demons, time hopping, Russell Crowe speaking in a terrible Irish brogue, and hilariously pointless scenes too numerous to count. Needless to say, seeing this in the cinema was nothing short of a treat. Quite unintentionally, Winter’s Tale manages to rank high as one of the funniest films of the year.
THE TOP TEN
It’s a whopping 196 minutes long – 196 minutes that mostly consist of intense, minutely composed, Turkish dialogue. But Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s minimalistic, quietly majestic Palme d’or winner has a way of creeping into your mind, haunting you even days after you’ve seen it. Detailing the ennui of everyday existence for wealthy Anatolian hotelier Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), Winter Sleep follows in the footsteps of Ingmar Bergman with its incisive, subtle, ultimately devastating portrait of failing interpersonal relationships and characters divorcing themselves from any kind of genuine emotion; their hearts – especially Aydin’s –, quite literally, go into hibernation. Helped by incredibly stark and precise camera work, courtesy of cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki, Ceylan does an archaeologist’s job brushing away the upper layers of his protagonists’ psyches in extended dialogue sequences in order to reach the core of their fundamental disappointment with life. This is a monument of rare intimacy.
It hardly comes as a surprise that perhaps the most suspenseful movie of the year was directed by a screenwriter. Steven Knight’s directing debut about the fateful Birmingham-London motorway drive of one Ivan Locke – a tour de force performance by Tom Hardy – is a stripped-down psychological drama that almost exclusively relies on the power of the spoken word. Hardy is the only visible actor in Locke, conducting life-changing conversations with co-workers (among them a fantastic Andrew Scott), family members, and a one-night-only mistress via his BMW’s phone. You could read this as a parable about a perennially multitasking society that cons itself into believing they are able to control life from their own little bubble of technology, but Knight never lets outsized ambitions take over his thoroughly human narrative about one man’s personal downfall and possible redemption. I couldn’t take my eyes (and mind) off the happenings on screen for the whole 85 minutes.
Under the Skin
Almost a decade after his last film, 2004’s Birth, English director Jonathan Glazer finally returned to the spotlight with Under the Skin. And it’s a strange animal indeed, challenging conventions to such a degree that even more seasoned cinemagoers might feel a bit lost witnessing the bizarre, often nightmarish – not least thanks to Mica Levi’s spectral music – events of the film unfold. Its mystery-riddled plot, for lack of a better word, revolves around a nameless alien (Scarlett Johansson) driving through Scotland and preying on lone men, many of them non-professional actors who were told they were being filmed only after having struck up conversation with Johansson. In this confounding, deeply fascinating film, Glazer proves himself to be a filmmaker of extraordinary vision, who makes his audience scrutinise their own humanity in new, potentially startling ways. As Scarlett Johansson cruises through a world that is alien to her, we ourselves have to come to terms with our own preconceptions about what it means to be human, and, in a scene of moving brilliance featuring a man suffering from neurofibromatosis, with how we look at and judge the humanity of other people.
Much of this film’s allure comes from its leading actor: Timothy Spall, in the role of English landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), delivers a performance for the ages, perfectly capturing every facet of cantankerous Turner’s notoriously eccentric behaviour, conveying every single one of his frequent coughs, grunts, and harrumphs with a maximum of feeling and subtext. But Spall’s magnificent acting masterclass is perfectly framed by director Mike Leigh, whose gorgeously photographed film, focusing on episodes in Turner’s later years, is at once a captivating “portrait of the artist as an old man” and a poignant historical drama that, not just with its set decoration but also with its finely tuned contemporary dialogue, richly recreates that seminal passage in British history where the Georgian era gave way to the industrial grandeur of the Victorian age. The past truly comes alive in the highly emotional, unabashedly funny, utterly engrossing Mr. Turner.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
There is no counting the jokes that have been made about Wes Anderson’s penchant for nostalgia, symmetry, and skewed lines of dialogue. To say that he distances himself from this recognisable mode in The Grand Budapest Hotel would be as inaccurate a statement as you could make. If anything, his eighth feature is the apotheosis of his trademark style. The film, inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig – this isn’t a mere affectation, as the links to works such as Schachnovelle or Ungeduld des Herzens are clearly visible –, is composed like a stupendously intricate doll’s house, with pitch-perfect colour-coded costumes matching the set decoration; the camera moves at precise 90-degree angles; the characters, particularly Ralph Fiennes’s Monsieur Gustave H., are wonderfully, deliberately verbose. The story that is told is an almost ridiculously fast-paced crime caper of yesteryear, set in a pre-World War II Hollywood fiction of Eastern Europe full of strange and shifty figures chasing after a priceless painting. And yet, this is not art for art’s sake: not Anderson’s first film to do this, The Grand Budapest Hotel is permeated by a distinct sense of melancholy at the ultimate hopelessness of nostalgia. Like the very best comedies, this one makes us laugh, cry, and think at the same time.
Twelve years in the making, Boyhood is one of those rare movies that well and truly deserve to be called a landmark. After casting his actors in 2002, director Richard Linklater – well-known for his love for continuity, as can be seen in his excellent Before trilogy – met up with them intermittently every year until 2013 to add a few scenes to his Twelve-Year Project, as the movie was initially planned to be titled. The upshot of it all is that 2014’s cinema audiences get to witness actors like Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and, most importantly, Ellar Coltrane, who plays the protagonist, actually age on screen. Growing from a seven-year-old elementary schooler into a 19-year-old college student, Mason (Coltrane) lives through America’s eventful 2000s while his divorced mother (Arquette) tries to offer him and his sister (Lorelei Linklater) a normal childhood despite them frequently moving from one Texan town to another. As the years literally progress, we ourselves are forced to reflect upon our lives and what we have gone through, what we have suffered, what we were lucky enough to be a part of in the last dozen years. Boyhood is the film of a generation.
The Wind Rises
If anime grandmaster Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement from feature filmmaking should prove permanent, he has left us on a very high note. The Wind Rises is unlike any of his other films, replacing the fantastical elements and the allusions to Japanese mythology that shaped outstanding movies like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, or Spirited Away with a story that is based on actual events: the film’s protagonist is Japanese airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Hideaki Anno), whose aesthetic interest in flying machines led him to design those planes that became synonymous with Kamikaze attacks in World War II. Not only does Miyazaki outdo himself artistically here – his visions of the colourful interplay of clouds and the sky are stunning –, he creates a deeply moving paean to art and artists who dare to pursue the beauty that is to be found in this world. The Wind Rises presents us with a beautiful answer to the question why humanity needs art.
Few movies about America in recent years cut as deep whilst feeling as thoroughly effortless as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. It’s a road movie of sorts, chronicling the journey of old man Woody (a fantastic Bruce Dern) and his son (Will Forte) from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, where, due to a scam letter he found in his mail, Woody thinks he is entitled to collect a million dollars. Payne, along with scriptwriter Bob Nelson, tells a touching, in turns sweetly and deftly humorous family story about estranged, frustrated people venting their feelings and rediscovering their fondness for each other in the process. On a more allegorical level, Nebraska also deals with the decline of America’s post-industrial heartland that, it seems, has been dealt the fatal blow by the latest financial crisis tearing through the land. In times like these, it is the proverbial American optimism people cling to, even if that hope is not much more than an illusion. There is an unmistakable satiric dimension to this film, whose conclusion appears to be that there are no easy solutions. But Payne still gives his viewers hope, celebrating the ability to find solace and joy in the small everyday things.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Hayao Miyazaki wasn’t the only legendary anime director who provided Swiss cinemas with a stroke of genius this year. Isao Takahata, probably best known for his uncompromising war drama Grave of the Fireflies, returned to Studio Ghibli for the first time since 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas to adapt for the screen Japan’s oldest extant narrative – the 10th century folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, whose protagonist finds a tiny girl inside a bamboo plant, whom he raises with his wife before grooming her to become a princess. The Tale of Princess Kaguya subverts the original narrative by examining it critically, questioning the validity of the morals such fairytales convey. Takahata’s heroine does not seek to be paired off, she has no interest in her heavenly lineage, she does not feel weighed down by her earthly existence. It’s an often funny and heartwarming, but also bittersweet, achingly beautiful story – told in gorgeous watercolour images – about the wish for righteous self-fulfilment, the deceptive power of arbitrary social conventions, and the sadness inherent in the passage of time. Wise, poetic, and utterly enchanting, this fairytale is a masterpiece.
Spike Jonze has yet to make a feature film that is not good. Or, more accurately, he has yet to make a feature film that is not excellent. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are are all curious but indubitably fascinating, superbly crafted movies. And Her is even better. Set in late 2020s Los Angeles, its main character, introverted Theodore Twombly, played with equal parts wit and world-weariness by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his new computer operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what aspect of it makes Her such a staggering work. There is Jonze’s script – the first one he wrote entirely by himself – with its perceptive observations about human interaction and the seemingly insurmountable crux of misunderstandings and failed communication whilst retaining a perfectly naturalistic sound. There is the genuine romance and correspondent character drama that unfolds between Theodore and Samantha, as the operating system names herself. Because Jonze refuses to judge their relationship from any imagined moral high ground, the story never slips into dystopian hypothesis but remains an affecting tale of the trials of love throughout. There is the philosophical conundrum: where does humanity end and artificial intelligence begin? What is love if not the emotional bond formed between two minds, even if one of those minds isn’t connected to a body? Samantha’s thoroughly un-mechanical intuition, coupled with her enduring rapport with Theodore, seems to beg questions like these. At the same time, however, Her could indeed be called a dystopian film, as it envisions a Western society that is dangerously caught up in its increasingly lifelike appliances, evidenced by the hundreds of extras taking part in the film’s outdoor scenes who walk through life with their eyes on a screen and headphones in their ears. But there is no Luddite fearmongering to be found in this truly great film. By bridging the gap between social commentary and heartfelt romance, Jonze offers us an ultimately hopeful cautionary tale about how technology can – and does – enrich our lives, but that we must keep in mind that progress brings with it new challenges and new questions that we are well advised to face.