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Mar 8, 2015

Best of 2014 - My Top 20

Another film-year came to an end. 2014 was very good for films, every year is in its own way. Sure it didn't reach the heights of 2013 but it sure had enough surprises and significant works to say that it wasn't a complete waste. Richard Linklater's Boyhood was met with the kind of response no film in my lifetime has ever received and I am all for it. Birdman won the Academy Award, Cannes gave their best film to Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep. The mostly sung films came out earlier the year. As usual, many of the films we were all dying to watch came out in that precious slot between the end of fall festivals and the beginning of new year because awards season counts more. It's all business my friends. From American Sniper controversy (lol what controversy?) to Selma's inevitable glory, from films about aliens to one about a psychopath, different topics and themes were tackled. Films about a boy's coming of age struggles, a woman's journey to save her job, a woman's journey to find out what it's really like to be a woman... to a woman battling the darkest of emotions.... people trying to survive a country, a particular time in a country, a particular mindset in a country.... many of the films this year were about human beings trying to survive the various struggles of life. The theme of this year was life in all its forms. This was also a year where we saw some truly unorthodox but refreshing 'biopics'... and of course some typically bland ones. Interesting experimentation in storytelling, be it a 12 year-long production or life-long portrayal of a women's sexual journey... comedies, tragedies, horror, action, science fiction, fiction-celebrated-as-truth, truth-slammed-as-fiction... oh what a year.

I have tried to write a few lines on my top 20 films of 2014 below. As with every year, I haven't reviewed almost all of these films but life isn't going anywhere. Or maybe it is? So I will begin by mentioning my 10 honorable mentions (that takes the 21-30 slot in my overall list) and then will go ahead with the rest of the top films.

(In alphabetical order)

Blind - Citizenfour - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes- Eastern Boys - Jodorowsky's Dune - Like Father, Like Son - Pride - Starred Up - The Babadook - Tom at the Farm


20. Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch's most Jarmuschian film is a superbly different, off-beat and refreshing entry into the tired and dead genre of vampire films. Love is at the center of it but not the superficial one. The vampire couple that we follow are bound not only to one another for eternity but to themselves and what makes them who they are. Music, books, life, lifestyle. Written with a unique sense of humor and poetic depth, expanded in a surprisingly touching way and entrancing for its visual and aural excellence. Thank goodness that Tilda Swinton exists and that filmmakers like Jarmusch realizes her worth. The sights of endless dancing and walking through the streets of Tangier are alone worth it but there is more to it all. Jarmusch creates an intoxicating atmosphere, the night feels so alive in this film. The soundtrack, production, every detail is truly well done. Two vampires struggling to come up with reasons to stay alive, even for each other. But life is what you make of it so, dance away.

19. Force Majeure

Winner of many awards, this Swedish dark comedy is a film that will be remembered for two things. Snow and man-cry. A hit at Cannes where it was screened in the Un Certain Regard section, this films tells the story of an ordinary couple out on ski vacation with their two kids in the French Alps when a tragedy strikes. The event that literally changes the course of this couple's life is a moment both thrilling and funny, its scary in a funny way and funny in a scary way. What does a man do in the moments when his life is in danger? He tries to save himself, that is it, no relationships no spontaneous burst of heroism. This is a film that sheds a piercing light on our roles in the society, the constricted and age-old perception about masculinity and femininity. The gender tropes and marital life, heroism, fatherhood and removing the basic humanity out of it all. Special acting mention would go to Lisa Loven Kongsli for a strong performance. Force Majeure has stunning visuals, slightly eccentric filmmaking and truly involving storytelling. It is a witty satire that is intelligent without overdoing it and doesn't dumb down anything to prove its point. A delightfully distress viewing.

18. The Missing Picture

This Cambodian-French documentary was nominated at the Oscars a year back in the foreign language category as well as it won the top award at Cannes under the Un Certain Regard section. Director Rithy Panh re-creates and re-imagines the horrors people of Cambodia faced during the Khmer Rouge. An important and horrific part of the history, where the country and its people lost so much. This doc uses news footage as well as clay figurines to dramatise what happened, backed by enlightening narration. The juxtaposition of horror and beauty, of how it was like and what it meant. It is an inventive way to explore the past but more than that, a haunting experience that shakes one down to the core. When it is too much to imagine, Panh skillfully directs our attention and emotions to a particular moment using figures to breathe a new life into the plights of those poor tortured souls. There is anger that lingers, understood and well-directed. A mediation of sort on memory and life during oppressive times. You don't see war but feel the horrors of people dying a slow death at the hands of others. Both expansive and very personal, Panh's brilliant effort isn't wasted. The picture isn't missing anymore, its alive and is telling so much about itself.

17. Mr. Turner

Here is one of those notable 'different' biographies I was talking about earlier. Mike Leigh does what no other filmmaker in their right mind would dare to do these days. He re-creates the entire world of and for his subject, envisions the internal and external battle the man faced. You don't just see his art come to life but him, his spirit and his identity feeling so alive and well its just unfair. Timothy Spall gives a performance to be remembered for as British artist J. M. W. Turner. He is as immersed in his character as the director is in the beauty and the ugliness behind a particular time and period as well as the man and what made him who he was. Mr. Turner is a very rich film that also shows the rough side of the man and his world, the ideas behind his creations and the person himself. The production, costumes and everything else completely essential to what makes this film such a stunning realized world. Dick Pope's cinematography is an art itself, painting in motion and a work so beautiful, the colors seem to come right out of the screen and you can feel them on your skin. Cannes winning performance by Spall is a strong asset but so is the contribution by actors like Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson and Paul Jesson. The film is warm, elegiac, funny, awkward, serious and full of various shades that makes up life and the people who lives them... famous or otherwise.

16. Ida

Having recently re-watched this film, the appreciation has grown tremendously for this miracle of a film from Poland. Winner across the festival season in 2013, this drama directed by Pawel Pawlikowski did really well during US awards season in 2014. A quiet, quietly moving and slowly devastating drama about a young nun Anna in the 1960's who visits her aunt before taking her vows and discovers brutal secrets about her family's past. Ida is a road-movie as much as a character's self-discovery. It is about how past is crucial and almost defining of who and what a person is. The pain and sufferings entire nations and communities endure and how they may or may not get past them. Of course, we all have our own choices to influence and change our own future but past cannot be forgotten. Apart from the unique storytelling on display here, the cinematography is the highlight and the most supreme work of the year in that department. Characters are always put in the corners of the frame in extreme with much space left around them. Extreme close-ups puts us right in front of the characters, various other shots mounts them in their own space. The black and white photography is artful and masterful, the brisk 80 minutes running time covers so much and yet it doesn't feel all too much. In fact, the film leaves one to think and feel as well as contemplate along the characters. The nature of faith and ideology, identity and familial ties, history as a burden and future an opportunity. Elegant, resonating, tranquil.

15. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson had a year to remember with this wonderful film. Released earlier the year, it became a hit with the audience, critics and industry alike. His most acclaimed and celebrated film so far, it was shown at Berlin International Film Festival along with Boyhood. A strongly witty, charming, elegant and dazzling treat for the eyes and heart. Story of a famous hotel in a fictional city back in the 30's Europe, ran successfully by Gustave and his lobby boy shadowing him wherever he goes. The destination for all rich aristocrats, everyone is happy with their stay and adores Gustave for his services. Anderson tells the story through different timelines. A girl reading a book, the book written by somebody who visited the hotel when it was no longer in its glorious prime and of course, the story of Gustave and the lobby boy Zero Mustafa and their adventures. The different aspect ratios and aesthetics invite us in like a dream within a dream. It is a throwback to a particular time and period, the rich culture and the art snatched away by the rise of corrupted evils. There is a melancholic touch and a sadder undercurrent that is present in almost every film of Anderson but enhanced more because of the nature of the story. The film is populated by weirdly amusing, zany characters. A superb ensemble with Ralph Fiennes giving a strong performance that is unlike of him but shows how great of an actor he is. The score, costumes, makeup and the best of all, the grand production design of the film is memorable and masterful. Read my review here.

14. The Wind Rises

Animation master Hayao Miyazaki's swan song is a bittersweet, fascinating and a grand examination of art as a personal tool and sometimes, its corruption at the hands of others. A personal odyssey of a boy fascinated with air crafts and his realization as a man during wartime that they are to be used for the slaughter of other beings. This is an adaptation of Miyazaki's own manga which in itself was an adaptation, a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi the designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and other air crafts used by the Empire of Japan during World War II. A historical drama, as great as adult storytelling can get in animation form. A biography interested in deeper things, fascinated with the complex nature of life and the tangled morality of obsession, the one that creates and the one that destroys. You can't expect a less than stellar animation from Mr. Miyazaki, the flight sequences, the dream scenes, extraordinary moments or the ordinary ones, the beauty and purity of hand-drawn animation art re-vitalized. Strongly written story that works on many levels, its longer than usual animated films are but its epic scope is important to what makes this a standout. The score by Joe Hisaishi as usually, a superb companion complementing and adding another layer to the proceedings. A majestic experience.

13. Life Itself

A film centered around a personal hero, the champion of cinema and its worth with both the academics and the ordinary, told with such personal and emotional insight, dramatic heft and humorous touches, Life Itself is the documentary of the year. Steve James directed this based on Roger Ebert's memoir of the same name from 2011. Life Itself is about a man who lived life the fullest, a complete life with many downfalls and rise, professionally and personally. The way he was brought up to his growth in journalism. A film critic who was a great observer, connected with the masses through the common things that binds us all to cinema. His final days when he was ill, nothing could stop him from watching and writing about films through his laptop. His wife and now widow, Chaz Ebert standing along with him throughout, a strong figure and influencer. This film celebrates life of a man and his admiration of the things that made his life worth. One of the most personal experience I've had with a film, read my review here.

12. Nightcrawler

The best directorial debut of the year, Dan Gilroy's sleek and pulsating thriller is excellent as commentary, satire, depiction, examination and much more. Jake Gyllenhaal gives his career best performance as a sociopath Lou Bloom. He is a driven man who knows how to get where he wants to and doesn't refrain from taking the paths one might think a hundred times before taking. He looks scary physically, his eyes popping out but his mind works far sharper and his actions all stem from a place with firm realization of how things around us work. He is culmination of all that is wrong in our society and he loves being that. Bloom starts working for TV stations, recording crime scenes for the news and his rise in the industry is a jaw-dropping fare to watch. Bloom knows our collective desire and thirst to see shocking images, get quick information in the most convenient way. Nightcrawler is also a fantastic character study that creates a fully realized picture of Lou Bloom, from the very first scene to the last, his progression and development is spot-on. He surprises and shocks us at every turn, it gets worst the more we find out about him. The feel-bad movie of the year is beautifully photographed, neo-noir and nocturnal style with which Los Angeles is captured. Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed are a worthy presence in the film. A heart-pounding film, features one of the most thrilling climaxes of recent films.

11. Selma

Indie filmmaker Ava DuVernay's buzzed film is a historical drama based on the events of and leading up to the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery. Among other important figures, they were led by Martin Luther King, Jr. portrayed in this film by British actor David Oyelowo in a gripping, unforgettable performance. Caught in a make-shift controversy, some tried to knock this film down but couldn't. It is a political film that hits one more deeply because of the unfortunate events of the present times. It resonates because of its topicality and timeliness. A vivid, extraordinary recreation of the events that happened and the dire need for us all to learn from the lives of those people. Selma is beautifully written and conceived, it remains so intimate that the people it focuses on becomes ratable, the audience are involved. You don't just see these 'great men and women' from afar. This is a biography that is willing to show its heroes as flawed humans like any of us. What sets them apart is that they stood up against the wrongdoings, raised their voices, their strength and resilience is astonishing. Selma is beautifully photographed film with a stunning ensemble of actors. This is a film that breaks your heart but strengthens ones spirits. Impossible to hold back tears, the eruption of violence in that important sequence is a moment one can never forget. Powerful, moving and terrific filmmaking.


10. Leviathan

Andrey Zvyagintsev's Russian epic is a film that deals with ordinary people and their ordinary problems in an extraordinary world. More than any other film in my list, it's very depressing. Also at the same time, its darkly humorous. A modern reworking of the Book of Job, the film's plot is created with a true story in mind that happened in the United States. Beautifully adapted and well conceived, it somehow fits with keeping the modern state of Russia or at least our impression of it. Nevertheless, the film isn't an assault on anyone but a truly gripping drama that touches on things many of us go through. The helplessness we feel at the hands of those higher in command, the government or the changing tides within our very backyard. The bursts of humor in the film plays with and not out of the film and the situations. As with any other film by Mr. Zvyagintsev, the cinematography is ace. The quiet way Leviathan begins with nature following its course, the mountains, seas and lakes. Nature continues its circle, people are ground and defeated, life continues. Leviathan is a powerful and rigorous work, pitiless and hopeless. Life these days means not much without money and power. In the end, the film leaves one in a state that is hard to describe in words. Sure it's a bitter film but it evokes the need to hold on to the only thing that should matter, truth. No matter how difficult the times, one should stand for it. Another film that paints a harsh reality of life. Leviathan features good performances with Elena Lyadova in particular leaves one devastated.

9. The Immigrant

James Gray's stunning melodrama has (not) enjoyed a divisive treatment of its release and the critical status among the audience. When I had the opportunity to watch it earlier last year, it left me with such a painful feeling in my heart. The longing and the ode to a particular time and period and the plights of those people really touched me in a unique way. Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, the performances are very good with characters playing desperate and restless souls. The cinematography is stunning, the light and color scheme creates an atmosphere of grief and bygone era. Films like these aren't made these days. As much as it flows so freely with its own emotional rigour, the film is surprisingly restraint. Many have slammed it for dull story but I am unable to find anything that lacks in the film. It is an immigration melodrama as soulful and alive as any other. The opening shot of the statue of liberty to the closing shot of divided fate of people living in the same world, it stuns and moves one equally. The final shot being the shot of the year. Beautiful production and score, the film is affecting and deeply thoughtful. Every shot is dreamy, every turn raises the stakes.

8. Olive Kitteridge

I maybe cheating a little here but this HBO mini-series feels more like a 4 hour TV film so here we are. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko, this is an adaptation of the 2008 award-winning novel by Elizabeth Strout. Frances McDormand in the titular role gives a magnificent performance that might just be her best. She is the reason it all feels worth it. McDormand plays a school teacher living in Maine with her husband played by Richard Jenkins and her son. The film jumps in time over the hours, giving a thoughtful and deep portrayal of life lived by Olive. She suffers from depression but this film doesn't define her by that. She is strict, bitter, mean-spirited yet deep down, a well-meaning woman. The spikes in her moods and behaviors with the people she loves comes from a wounded place. The characters aren't truly likable all the time here but the show treats them like human beings. A masterful portrait of town, the sense of growing older with people you see or live with. The transitions in the film are quite depressing because things change, they don't stay the same forever. Every emotion and reality adds another layer of complication as time goes by. Both McDormand and Jenkins complements each other so well, perfectly cast. Not only is this a singular one-character semi-POV but other characters are as much involved. A poignant film with some of the most organic dialogues and vivid depiction of parenthood, marriage and growing old.

7. Foxcatcher

This biographical drama directed by Bennett Miller is a sensational, chilling examination of the American dream. Egos fly high in this drama, authority and control are powerful tools. Extremely unnerving and toxic, those familiar with the real-life tale would be surprised to find that the heart starts beating fast well before the incident is shown. Miller has always fascinated me with his craft, he gets to the bottom of things, stripping away to reveal so much more underneath. Foxcatcher is the story of Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz and the schizophrenic millionaire John du Pont who shows interest in the sport and Mark. They work together, the relation both professional and personal is at the center of the narrative. Mark's older brother Dave Schultz is a champion as well, a good influence but the brothers grow apart slightly. Steve Carell gives a strong performance, covered in makeup and unrecognizable, he doesn't just impersonate but act, perform and live-in his character. The most surprising performance however is given by Channing Tatum, rough and tough on the surface but raging emotions burning underneath. Mark Ruffalo as usual a calming, rather warm presence, a beautiful performance. Foxcatcher brims with the symbolism not overt, the dialogues strong, it feels mythic. The story heard in the news once has grown into such a deep exploration of jealousy, wealth and dominance. A taut psychological film in which the crime itself isn't shocking as much as the progression towards it.

6. Birdman

This black comedy, showbiz satire was the winner of Academy Award two weeks back. Birdman was met with high praise upon its release and it continued to grow. Alejandro González Iñárritu directed the film with real technical vigor, supported by the biting dialogues and sharp performances. Michael Keaton in an emotionally affecting, career high performance plays Riggan Thomson, a once famous actor who played a superhero. He is making a comeback of sorts with a Broadway play, putting everything on the line for it and completely immersing himself and his energy in this project. A man keen to make a mark in an industry that forgets soon, he feels his accomplishments were very trivial and that he didn't contribute to the art as much as he wanted to. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera is a crucial character in the film itself, a memorable and important reason why not only the film is so incredible but also the experience that it is. Backstage politics, vulnerable cores, soft shells, dishonesty, pretensions... the camera lets us follow each character to show them at their lowest as well as at their most truest selves. This one-take trickery never lets us loose our connection with the people in the film as well as what they are going for. The ensemble of the year acts their way in these rehearsed sequences with excellence. Above all, Keaton is the heart and soul of this film. A brutally funny and self-aware film that comments on everything that is good and bad about the modern popular culture.

5. Whiplash

Jazz, drums, sweat, blood and a screaming J. K. Simmons. A sensational film that became a sensation with the masses. Nobody can deny the intense and gripping hold this film experience holds. The incredibly tense, fist-clenching, stomach churning sequences. A breathless, virtuoso film packed with so much energy that makes you sweat at the other side of the screen. From Sundance (where it won the main prize) to Cannes and then the awards season, Damien Chazelle's film about jazz, passion and perfection blew the minds of many. It has been quite a pleasure to watch an up and coming filmmaker take the movie-world by storm. In Whiplash, Miles Teller plays an aspiring young jazz drummer Andrew Neiman, attending one of the best music schools where his teacher is a feared almost blood-thirsty conductor Terence Fletcher. How far would you go to achieve greatness and what truly defines 'perfection'? Is one to loose all sanity in their life for something  they are trying to do or create? This film is a depiction of those debates without taking any sides. There are moments in the film that people may mistake for glorification or support when they are truly, horrifying. J. K. Simmons' utterly frightening performance needs no introduction, Milles Teller however does his best work so far matching to the intensity of his co-star in few moments. Both the performances are in their own leagues of course, Simmons is the victor. Packed with energy and intensity, the editing, direction and treatment of this film is quite thrilling.

4. Two Days, One Night

Belgian filmmaking duo Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne brought another brilliantly humanist film last year. Of their films I have seen, this one hit me like no other. Told and portrayed with such vitality and realism to advance and support the subjects and their world. The plot? A married woman with children returns after a time off to her work and finds out that her job rests in the hands of her sixteen co-workers. She needs to go and convince each and every one of them to give up a special bonus, this entire situation is due to the boss. It sounds so simple on paper, the depiction is organic and realist. The duo weaves such a brilliant tale that not only shows us the desperation of this world, inadequate jobs with long hours and less pay. It is hard to live and go on with the stress of having to raise a family under harsh conditions. Much harder for immigrants or less educated, lesser privileged people. The film revolves around a woman under these struggles, shown as the wounded and broken down person she becomes who ultimately rises due to her brave commitment under such hardships. Marion Cotillard in her best performance since the one she was nominated for before is hard to recognize. A performer who has lived in and taken over the role as hers. You don't see Marion Cotillard, just Sandra. A woman in depression and pain, under such strains and burden. Occasionally falling with tears, unwilling to go out and face the world, finally making an effort and then the moments where she smiles through because somebody showed her some compassion... its a ride. A film of smallest gestures but grand affections, of honesty and power of goodness that goes a long way. This is the cinema I miss these days.

3. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Immensely moving and tears inducing, this animated film from the great Studio Ghibli was one of the highlight experiences for me last year. No animated film since, well, director Isao Takahata's own Grave of the Fireflies has broken my heart and opened the emotional floodgates. Takahata's fifth film for the studio and sadly, his (supposedly) last is based on the folktale "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter". This exquisite and majestic hand-drawn animation is an emotional experience that is so complete. It feels like an actual tale, so much happens without being tiring. Only it leaves one with profoundly painful feeling having seen and felt a lifetime of moments of all shades. The princess it is based on is no ordinary character, she is discovered by a bamboo cutter under extraordinary circumstances who raises her with his wife as their own. There is something supernatural about her as she grows rapidly and seems to be looked over by something divine, giving the parents an impression that she is ought to be raised as a princess. A true princess with castle. The film goes on and we see her collide with the restraints put upon her which she didn't ask for. The nobility and royalty are too narrow and confining for her, Princess Kaguya wants to live freely, laugh, dance and enjoy life. Her story is filled with magical moments yet it speaks for everyone. Every girl, every woman, every person. The creative excellence is a treat to behold while its actual narrative, one for the ages. Add the lyrical and marvelous score by Joe Hisaishi and you have a film that moves by its story, the artwork and the sound. Nothing less than a masterpiece.

2. Under the Skin

Hypnotic, sensory, bizarre, odd, masterpiece. Just some of the words that comes to mind for this film. Jonathan Glazer made something that is so out of this world. A sci-fi film that is unlike any sci-fi... or any film for that matter. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien, her job to attract prey (men whom she interacts with and lures for sexual treats) and then do something weird to them (by engulfing them into a black goo which her house is covered in so that they can be harvested)!!! Silly, very silly to really write the plot but an enthralling experience that is so much more. An alien trying to learn and observe humanity objectively. She tries to understand what it is like to be a human being. What she learns is that its hard out there to be a woman. From her view, the world is filled with men who searches for prey just like her. To treat them like objects, use them and throw away. They are nothing more than skin and flesh for them. She picks on such minor details seeing women everywhere dress up vibrantly, putting on make up and talk in flirtatious manner. Something changes in her at one point, she starts to feel like an actual person. That emotional flicker is what becomes the end of her. Johansson really surprises with her ability to really play every single aspect convincingly. The creepy and very eerie score by Mica Levi is a highlight. It is not just another odd thing thrown in for good measure, the score elevates and puts a different spin on things. It truly gets under your skin, the screechy voices, so disturbing. Beautiful photography where Scotland turns into a ghost town that is filled with people, at the same time sparse and misty habitat of sorts. A transfixing, scary experience filled with masterful imagery and their twisted and deep implications. Under the Skin is love at first sight that only grows and matures. Read my review here.

1. Boyhood

Oh well finally, here is the best film of the year. Boyhood took the world by storm, premiering at Berlin and then sweeping everything up until the Academy Awards. If you follow me or have read my review, you know exactly why I hold it in such high regards. Why it has taken such a special place in my heart. Why it is important, why it works the way it does. I have deemed it the best film to come out in years. Richard Linklater's super-ultra-mega-magnum opus is a film about life and its moments. How it all passes by so fast while every single turn feels like it will never end. The adolescence that is shown in the film is pure organic beauty. The storytelling only supports, doesn't overwhelm or makes grand gestures. The burden of childhood and learning about the world. Facing disappointments, going through tougher phases, finding one's true identity. It connects and proves to be an experience that evokes one's past. The theme and the subject is universal without having really experienced it all like Mason does in the film. Another great thing about this coming of age film is that it is not just about the boy. Everyone grows and matures. Everyone makes mistakes and learns. The family is followed closely as well, specially the mother played by Patricia Arquette in a winning performance. Memories and moments are always connected to something. In our life, the big milestones are only trivial things. Playing roles or establishing something. It is all about the journey, how we get there, the people we meet and the things we learn along the way. Life teaches us many things, experiences helps shape a person. Boyhood is life in a nutshell, seldom has a film taken such a grand premise and then portrayed it all in such a humble way. It speaks so much of the filmmaker and all the talent involved. The "M" word feels like a small thing to describe the sheer breathtaking power of this beast.

And that as they say is the end, hopefully you enjoyed reading my picks and what was written of them. If you are interested in checking out the entire list, head over to Letterboxd for that. Do tell me about your top films of 2014 in the comments.

Stay tuned for my Best of 2014 Awards post, coming soon.