2014 was a year where ambition transcended the film medium to greater heights than we had previously seen before. Whether it was the incredible cinematographic feat in Birdman, the breaking of cinematic boundaries in Jean Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language or even the multi-million dollar budget bringing Christopher Nolan’s vision to life on the big screen in Interstellar.
There were grand realization of a decade long projects like Linklater’s Boyhood or the beautiful, heart-breaking end of a memorable studio’s era with Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya. 2014 may not have had the same number of quality films as 2013 (which let’s admit it was an exceptional year) but what it lacked in quantity, it made up for it in sheer ambition and scale.
If you ask me, I think films took more steps in 2014 than they have in the past 3-4 years. Each achievement — technical and creative have combined to give “the medium of 20th century” new life in the 21st century.
So, without further ado, let’s get started by remembering some of the best films from the past year:
Jean Luc-Godard, Goodbye to Language
Editing has always been closely associated with semiotic interpretation and in few films is that meaning dissected as thoroughly and in a thoroughly unconventional manner as Godard’s 3D film Goodbye to Language. As a director who has always been associated with the inability of language to capture our thoughts, Godard reignites his philosophical ramblings but unlike much of his output in the past 2 or 3 decades, he does it by pushing boundaries of cinema. Juxtaposition of a 3D frame atop a 2D frame and jittery cutting of sound and film are ordinary elements of Godard’s latest Jury Prize winning feature. At the age of 80, Godard continues to prove that he is still one of the most effective technical film-makers out there by breaking boundaries and creating new meaning out of them.
Emmanuel Lubezski, Birdman
2014 was when tracking shots became the buzz word, largely thanks to True Detective’s famous six-minute shot at the end of Episode 4. But the most effective use of tracking shot was built in Innaritu’s Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Cinematographer Lubezski somehow combined long one-take shots to build a convincing illusion of continuity that really captured all the bubbling energy of the film and the actors’ performance. More importantly, it effectively created a sense of place for the film to root all its ongoing drama to the backstage setting.
Best Supporting Actor
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Hawke always rises up to his potential in a Linklater film. The Before trilogy has already proved that, but Boyhood by its very nature has shown how he can efficiently create a core to his character, even in the face of passing time. Hawke’s character faced an incredible acting challenge as the divorced dad who dropped in once in a few years to take the kids to a brief trip. He didn’t only have to communicate all the subtleties in his character’s arc but also hold onto the core that defined him, for the sake of the audience and for the sake of Ellar Coltrane’s central protagonist. How do you relate to your father if you only see him once in a few years? Hawke’s warm, endearing personality that is always intending to create and hold onto the bond he has created goes a long way, and he effectively communicates it to the audience.
Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
On the flipside, Patricia Arquette’s character had the exactly opposite challenge compared to Ethan Hawke. Beyond Coltrane’s protagonist, she had the most fleshed out character and Arquette provided justice to that. More than that, she also had the most character who was reactive to the drama around her, while keeping in mind that she was always a mother first. In doing so, Arquette’s character conveyed a deep sense of sacrifice and the struggles of working as a single mother effectively. More importantly, she also conveyed a subtle regret when looking at the teenage Coltrane & Lori Linklater’s characters, as many mothers often do. Looking back at all the missed opportunities to connect with your children and being filled with a strange paradoxical mix of pride, contentment and regret.
Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice AND The Immigrant
I’ve said it before on one of these blogs and I’ll say it again. Joaquin Phoenix is the most underappreciated actor of our generation. He has such an incredible range and he still brings amazing depth to each of the characters that he is tasked to play. Nowhere is this more apparent than the contrast he offered in his two best roles in 2014. One as the stoner detective Doc in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and the other as the dominating but well-meaning Bruno in James Gray’s The Immigrant. His range can be seen in these two roles. In Inherent Vice, he plays a stoner properly flitting between moments of general confusion and lucidity seamlessly. He also alters his body gait and posture, often resulting in some hilarious moments of physical comedy. In The Immigrant, he plays as a conflicted, brooding and violent man who loves exerting power over those weaker than him but also admires Cotillard’s Polish immigrant. He brings a great weight to some of the film’s packed emotional scenes and builds a very dangerous, tenuous chemistry with Cotillard. Through both these roles, Phoenix proves why he’s still the best. Now, if only someone would kindly give this man a couple of Oscars.
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
From one underappreciated actor to another. Johansson is a great actress and she has proven it repeatedly whenever she has been given opportunity to do so, be it in Lost in Translation or Match Point. She only needed her voice to express her emotional range in Her. But in Under the Skin, she takes a completely different kind of challenge. She has to act and behave like an alien in order to complement the film’s own alien visuals. She does so by delving into a performance filled with little subtleties which describe her alien character’s attempt at understanding us human. Some might call it cold and expressionless but that is exactly what she does. It is in that blank state of expression as she starts absorbing aspects of human and absorbing some of our traits does she truly emerge into her own. The final half-hour is a showcase any actress would be proud of, as she emerges out from the cold shell showing expression of affection, isolation and fear, just like a human would. But it is the performance that comes before that, which is intentionally more alien-like and thus perfect for a film of this kind.
The LEGO Movie
We Are The Best
The Grand Budapest Hotel
A Girl Walks Alone At Night
Two Days, One Night
This would be a great film in any other year. But no work of art exists in a cultural vacuum and deservedly Selma became more than a simple film about MLK and his supporters who took the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. It was an interesting watch particularly by comparing it with Indian history where Gandhi took a similar march at Dandi and drawing parallels that bind the two great men and their ideologies on non-violence. But where Selma exceeded was in humanizing those people who walked along with MLK, allowing them to emerge as fully-realized people who were also facing discrimination in the South and rose up against that. In a year marked by racial violence from police and large-scale protests, many of us could draw inspiration from Selma while deconstructing the elements which have always been fundamentally flawed with the system itself.
9) Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch is a hit-and-miss director for me. He has a very unique style, for sure but barring Stranger than Paradise and maybe Dead Man, none of his films have stuck with me. Enter Only Lovers Left Alive. A film that’s moody as fuck, dripping with nocturnal style. And that’s even before you get to see the sparkling chemistry between its’ vampire lovers Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. The boredom of an undead romance is brought out with Jarmusch’s knack for stylish lightning and visuals as strong than ever. This time he has the a solid cast with the performance of the two leads as the highlight and a solid script as a foundation to root his stylistic vision in. And what a delightful watch it is.
8) The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Possibly, this could be Studio Ghibli’s swansong. If that’s true, then what a beautiful and poetic way to draw down the curtains. Isao Takahata’s Tale of Princess Kaguya captures the best of everything Ghibli’s films have stood for almost 3 decades. It has the breath-taking vibrant hand-drawn visuals that have become synonymous with the studio, a simplistic folklore feel to its story and characters and an emotional core that is relatable to anybody with a heart. What’s amazing is that despite drawing and collecting on all of Ghibli’s trademarks from past 3 decades, this film still has ambition to rise beyond into something greater. This is best captured in the minute-long scene when Kaguya escapes from the mansion built by her foster parents, and it’s as if the film itself has found freedom from its premise, however brief it is. The screencap above captures one such moment, and when I was watching it in a packed theater on a weekend, it drew everyone’s breath away. I could feel the goosebumps this sequence was giving to everyone. And even on a basic level of a shared experience, it was quite amazing.
Documentaries have been undergoing a renaissance of sorts lately. Last year, in particular, was monumental for documentaries with three different examples appearing in my Top 10. 2014 had a fair share of great documentaries but really only one got people talking on a high-cultural level. It was the documentary many never expected to see the light of the day. Laura Poitras’ along with Glenn Greenwald met Edward Snowden in Hong Kong after a series of coded exchanges. The film draws its greatest strength is that it frames itself as an engaging thriller directly playing against our own expectations and apriori knowledge about Snowden. It’s not entirely a subjective documentary (nothing could be) but Poitras presents her points very effectively and the pervasive paranoia that Snowden talks about in the hotel room doesn’t end once the film is over. It carries over once the viewers left the theatre, staring into their phones and the world around them, wondering how the definition of privacy had changed so easily.
6) Inherent Vice
Paul Thomas Anderson could rightfully claim the title of the “great American filmmaker of our generation”. His product has been consistently top quality and his ambition has been unwavering. What’s more is that like every ambitious American filmmaker of their era, PTA is not scared to tackle different source materials, all the time while building his own cohesive body of work. His films on oddballs takes a turn into the hazy 1970s fueled by drugs and conspiracy theories. Backed by a big cast of solid performers, Inherent Vice takes a dive down the rabbit hole of Pynchon’s circuitous writing and PTA somehow manages to do the impossible of translating it on screen. But make no mistake about it, Inherent Vice is still very much a PTA film with all his characteristic trademark and that only feels like a crowning achievement to a brave and successful adaptation of a novel that is by itself highly incoherent, just like its stoner protagonist.
5) Goodbye to Language
The closest thing to Jean Luc-Godard’s Goodbye to Language is the 1920s Vertov classic “Man With a Movie Camera”. Just like that, Godard’s first venture into 3D dissects and questions the conventions of film-making. He doesn’t just use 3D as a cheap gimmick or an alternative special effects technique. Instead, he uses it to create depth into the screen. But, he doesn’t stop there. One of the most innovative use of juxtaposition that I’ve ever seen in films and that’s even before we get to the frame-breaking technique. The handful of sequences where Godard uses two cameras in a single frame allowing the viewer to close one eye and see either frame. Left eyes sees one part of the frame, the right sees something else. Open both, and they combine into an incoherent mess (or coherent, depending on your perspective). It was the closest a film came in 2014 to blowing my mind, based on purely its formal machinations.
4) Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Meta-narratives may be a passe now seeing how Community and every other form of media is becoming increasingly self-referential. It’s easy to dismiss Birdman, based on purely that regard. But Innaritu’s film is so much more beyond a simple Michael Keaton self-referential device. It is not just a brilliant character study but also a dissection of the commercial systems dividing Hollywood from theater. The usage of superhero imagery and special effect explosions is not a coincidence in an era when Hollywood success is increasingly being equated to a bunch of big budget superhero films. Birdman works on multiple levels and it is that degree of contextual richness which elevates the film above its meta-narrative premise.
Ambition is often wrongly equated with scale. We consider films like Interstellar as ambitious because of their scale and the number of moving parts. However, a low-budget Polish black & white film with a simple, very personal premise is equally ambitious for what it tries to reach. Pawel Pawlikowski’s film successfully captures the whole feeling of living in a Communist Poland but communicates that through the eyes and existence of the central, eponymous character. Acted out brilliantly by Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida bases itself on small themes which are highly specific to that period and place of a post-WWII 1950s Poland. Capturing a strong relationship between Ida and her aunt, as well as her own questioning faith as a nun, Pawlikowski tackles some large themes with a seemingly innocuous and minimalist touch.
This would be an easy choice for #1, as evident from almost every Best Film list of 2014. And deservedly so. In almost every sense, Boyhood is a perfect film — in ambition, in scope and in execution. And it has what Interstellar didn’t. An actual heart that isn’t forced onto you through overwrought dramatic exposition. Boyhood is the culmination of Linklater’s 12-year long project capturing the growth of Ellar Coltrane and his fictional family from childhood to teenage. On low-level, it’s rooted in a sort of suburban familiarity that anyone who’s grown up in America should find. But it’s overarching themes of childhood, innocence and growing up are universal. And for Linklater to so effortlessly capture the growth of a boy and conveying the passage of time is a massive achievement in its own right. For him, to go beyond that and create a deep sense of meaning in what it means to grow up and the bonds you form with people around you, is another resounding proof that Linklater is a film-maker unlike any.
1) Under The Skin
I’ve stated before but I see film as primarily a visual medium. And in 2014, no film used visuals to convey and express its plot, character progression, emotion than Jonathan Glazer’s brilliantly unsettling horror sci-fi Under The Skin. But mere visual expression wouldn’t have catapulted this one over a giant like Boyhood. Nope, this film needed a performance like Scarlett Johansson to root its’ alien form into. It needed a soundtrack as eerily alienating like Mica Levi’s. But most importantly, it needed an eye that forced the viewer to look at mundanity from an alien’s perspective. Under The Skin literally puts you within an alien by reforming the lens of human eye in the opening scene and forces us to look at our ownselves from an alien perspective. The result is something chillingly surreal and unsettling. But one that succeeds in also communicating a discourse of the “male gaze” (Laura Mulvey’s 1975 paper is still relevant) and neatly subverting it in the film’s latter half as Johansson evolves into something more than an alien in a human body. Ironically, and the film drives this point home, it is that very moment, at which point the film becomes aware of its’ own reality as a horror film. Ambitious, visually breath-taking and richly layered, Under The Skin does what films do best. Provide existence to a world largely through visuals. And it does exactly that.