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Forget the Oscars: The 15 Definitive, Non-Debatable Best Films of 2014

Yes, the title is meant ironically. All film is subjective and every movie has an audience, but in 2014 Hollywood saw a dip both in box office revenue and critical/public acclaim of their average film. Was 2014 just a mediocre year for movies? In the perspective of the general public and average movie goer it would appear so.

However, if Hollywood is taken out of the picture what is left is independent and foreign films. Though financially these are much less significant than showy big budget flicks, they generally last the test of time. Often gathering cult followings with age and becoming something of icons in the eyes of cinephiles the world over.

This is where 2014 shined, perhaps more so than any year in recent memory. So great was the resurgence of indie films that many dedicated fans of Hollywood have begun to look elsewhere for entertainment. It is the opinion of this critic that last year’s vast library of diverse independent features is the beginning of a new wave of filmmaking. A response to Marvel’s decade long, mathematically calculated and emotionally uninteresting release date plan.

This list is not going to be a perfectly numbered top ten best movies of 2014 from least to best with the same comments about the acting and cinematography for every movie and monotonous blah, blah, blah. With the knowledge that each person sees something unique in film, it will be an alphabetical list of 15 “must-see” films that came out last year. The exception is the film I feel was most innovative and well executed from a filmmaking point of view. It will be ranked as number 1 and include a more elaborate review than the 14 other films.

Of course, there are a few films I did not have the opportunity to see so if a favorite film of yours is missing, or your order is different from mine, please share them in the comments. The main reason for a list of this nature is to share great titles for others to enjoy and that is a two way streak. So without further adieu, here are my 15 favorite films of 2014.

A Field In England 

A hypnotic horror period piece about a group of British civil war soldiers who flee the battlefield in search of an alehouse. Instead they are tricked and taken captive by an alchemist. Lack of explanation or narration strongly reinforce the feeling that one is dropped into a foreign place and adds a lot of depth to the scares.

The Babadook 

Much more than a monster movie, The Babadook tells a dark tale of grief and personal demons. Holding its spot as the scariest film of the year it will certainly please horror genre fans and be a good entry point for the unaffiliated. The way each scare derives from character rather than coming from the audience’s expectations makes it a tense and unpredictable ride.

Birdman

Etherial camera movements, witty dialogue, pitch perfect comedic timing, the meaning of life. These are the things that come to mind when one watches Birdman. A film which draws attention to its own creation and gives us enough back to reflect on how our lives interact and intersect with film as a medium. It is as dramatic, hilarious and meaningful as any of the comedies in the Coen brother’s catalogue.

Boyhood

Oscar front-runner for best picture, Linklater’s most recent film is a celebration of life. Not particularly dramatic or exciting, it focuses on the little moments made significant through personal context. Similarly, the weight of moments in the film are not realized without retrospect and repeat viewings. The editing and elongated 12-year filming project creates a life in its own. We begin to think of it as an organic being, evolving and taking new forms. Experimental to be sure, but executed with craft.

The Congress

Half cartoon, half live-action, The Congress uses surrealism and fantasy to depict the difference between the real world and a drug induced “animation zone.” The danger of technology is that it can cause intense separation as in this story when a mother is separated from her son. Robin Wright plays a fictionalized version of herself as an actress who sells consciousness to a production company for one last contract. The bizarre  nature of the visuals and fragmented story pose an important question in today’s society: At what point does technology take over human interaction? Leaving its viewers to answer and debate in the hours following its credits.

The Dance of Reality

Back in the 70’s Jodorowsky’s second film, El Topo, is credited with being the start of the midnight movie movement. His career in film ended in 1989 with Santa Sangre. The auteur now returns to the silver screen with an autobiographical true tour de force that will leave audiences shocked and mesmerized. Growing up in Chile with a Russian-Jewish-Stalinist father certainly created a difficult childhood. One which has been re-imagined as a melding of dream and reality. Certainly not for the faint of heart or stomach, the film contains graphic content from nudity to animal violence and torture. But those who stick it out will be rewarded with a unique visual experience.

Gone Girl

Shocking twists, violence and a consistently dark tonal shift halfway through makes Gone Girl a modern-day Psycho. Nick Dunn is a man who comes home on the morning of his 5th anniversary to find tables turned and his wife missing. The mystery starts here and doesn’t stop until the credits roll.

Grand Budapest Hotel

All of Wes Anderson’s films deal with loss, no exceptions are made here. In fact, this is by far his darkest work to date. And yet one remembers the fanciful sets, camera movements and jokes of this colorful world. The darkness reaches you with the tenderness of a parent explaining death to a toddler, then taking him to the park. This is due to the fact that Anderson builds his film as if it were built by his character, revealing facts about the story while only hinting at the emotionally painful sections. Dangerous indeed is this stylistic choice as it could make the events distant. Yet Anderson’s perfect attention to detail has out everything at precisely it’s required spot for a wonderful and human experience.

Ida

Composition is king. A young woman is preparing to take her vows as a nun when she is told to visit her aunt and see the outside world first. On this visit she decides she wants to visit her parents, jews who were killed why hiding from Nazi troops during the holocaust. No one knows where they are buried and a journey to discover this is where the majority of our story takes place. Simple, understandable, human. Two things take this from another holocaust movie to masterpiece status. The two brilliant performance by the leading women, and composition. So much brevity and beauty are used in every shot that the film could quite easily be watched with no volume and still be understood as well as enjoyed.

Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation. In this trip-inducing adventure we follow Doc, a P.I. who is trying to find an ex-lady friend. Focusing mainly on the character’s emotional journey rather than major plot points or twists, it can be a dizzying ride. However Anderson always puts us in the passenger seat right next to Doc. He rarely knows something we don’t, and vice versa. Visually stunning and a touching portrayal of love, P.T.A. once again hits it out of the park.

Under the Skin

Every few years, a film comes along with a rare sense of ambition and scope. Usually involving unconventional techniques, they are received in an almost even divide of love/hate, with little to no middle ground. Citizen Kane, Fight Club and The Tree of Life were all examples upon their release. Under the Skin is such a film. Shot largely in real streets with real people unaware that a movie was being made, the Scotland portrayed feels true and eerie. An alien seductress begins to doubt her the mysterious reason behind what she is doing and begs the question: What makes these people human? Kubrick caliber visuals and sound design evoke emotions and fears in a way the audience will not see coming.

The Wind Rises

It’s time to get personal. Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away was the first film I ever saw in theaters. Kindling a certain kind of creative mindset which continues into adulthood. It nurtured and developed the imagination of a generation in the same way. Now, we are presented with Miyazaki’s final film, and it is a bittersweet masterpiece every bit as good as anything in the director’s career. A passionate young man works on his career of designing airplanes. This career rolls into World War II, and an adventure of morals and love begins. Demonstrating creativity, innovation and passion in what is thought of by most as a tedious science. The stroke of a master painted this entire world. It is the most accessible Studio Ghibli without losing the sense of magic which die-hard fans crave.

Whiplash

Similarly to The Wind Rises, Whiplash is about passion in art. More specifically, passion in drumming. Subjective techniques such as fast camera movements to follow sticks, pacing scenes to the rhythm of songs and intense lighting for class sessions allow anyone to understand the psyche portrayed in this rivalry of student and teacher. Miles Teller plays Andrew, a college student who wants to be remembered as one of the great drummers of history. J.K. Simmons is terrifying as the ever-pushing, emotionally abusive professor Fletcher.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

What can be said about this film? Is it a comedy? Action? Horror? Shlock? Surely all of these. Most of all, it is Shion Sono film. Meaning it is completely bonkers. Simultaneously following a group of wanna-be filmmakers and a top family of a Yakuza clan and intersections of the two, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? offers non stop bizarre excitement. Worst case scenario, anyone a fan of B-movies, all things strange, or who has an open mind will find this Japanese flick thoroughly entertaining. Worst case you will regard it as a weird masterpiece. One critic referred to it as “Mankind’s greatest achievement.”

Mommy

Xavier Dolan’s new films Mommy solidifies his spot as the most exciting young filmmaker working today. Comparing Mommy to his first film I Killed My Mother is one of the most rewarding experiences in studying the progression of a director. This new film takes that same edgy, risk taking nature of Dolan’s previous films and refines it into a masterpiece of drama.

Following a troubled teenager and his mother as they try to get their life back on track. Energy pours out of the screen so genuinely that the sometimes ridiculous characters feel personal and real, never causing you to question them. Though the film is heavily stylized (down to the aspect ratio being a perfect square), every stylistic choice made derives from character, putting substance before style. Unfortunately nearly no one saw Mommy.

It passed under the radar unnoticed by the general public. Perhaps because it came out of the independent circuit of Quebec, perhaps some were put off by the aspect ratio and French language with English subtitles, whatever the reason it was unjustly missed. Not only is the story heartfelt and well written, but Dolan had to rewrite the rules of shot composition to fit his frame and he accomplished his task with vigor. Everything emerges from the story, brilliant performances by all three leads are on display, the accumulated soundtrack is engaging and often sets the pace of the scene and major risks are pulled off. Beautiful, emotional and life affirming, Mommy is more experience than movie.

It is hard enough to take the Academy Awards seriously as it is. But denying Xavier Dolan’s latest film “Mommy” a nomination for acting, cinematography and best foreign film is a crime to cinephiles the world over.

Honorary Mentions:

The Guest

The Lego Movie

The Double

 

Cover image via

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Categories: Lists and Editorials, Movie

Author:Oliver Gelleni

Check out more thoughts on movies new and old here: http://letterboxd.com/ogfilms/. I am an Austin based filmmaker with a passion and an eye for quality cinema.

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