Monday, December 22, 2014

Best Films of 2014

Like most years, my end of the year list is highly dependent on film festivals which serve as an unofficial distribution model for a majority of foreign and independent movies. However, despite the best efforts of multiple local film festivals, there is still usually an average of a 1-2 year wait to see many foreign films after its Cannes premiere. For example, a few Cannes 2013 titles only appeared in local cinemas this year. A big reason for this delay is that film distribution still follows an outdated model where films are meant to get a theatrical release first before releasing online or on DVD. This release model ignores the reality that there are only a few North American cities with dedicated arthouse/indie cinemas to give these foreign films a proper theatrical run. That means if one does not live in New York or Toronto, then it is a long wait to legally see these festival films. This delay causes a year end list to continuously look back 1-2 years for a proper assessment. For example, this year’s theatrical releases proved that 2013 was an even better year than I had first thought. A full verdict on 2014 may only be properly gauged in the summer of 2015. The other impact of this delay is that local cinemas are not my prime source for catching some of the best global films. For example, only 5 films of the 22 films (23%) in this list got a regular theatrical run in the city. A majority of this list was composed due to the 8 film festivals I attended this year, with 7 local festivals and the 8th being Sundance. 4 of the films in this list were seen at Sundance, while a 5th title, Locke, also showed there. Such a high dependence on international film festivals to catch some of the best films in the world is not a financially feasible model. And local film festivals can’t always show the top festival films every year either. Still, I am grateful to have seen many worthy features and documentaries.

Here are the top 11 films seen in 2014:

1. Locke (UK/USA, Steven Knight)

Locke uses a car and a cellphone, two items that are essential to many people’s lives, to explore moral and ethical problems related to job, family and relationships. These topics are fashioned in a manner which forces the main character Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) to step across a moral minefield, where each step could lead to a potential explosion. The entire film takes place with Locke driving in his car and as he continues on his route, his life slowly starts to collapse. That is ironic considering his job requires him to oversee solid structural foundations. In his job, Locke is surrounded by physically heavy objects enough to crush a human. Yet, in the film, he is crushed by words. As his character of Locke sinks further, Tom Hardy as an actor soars. Hardy delivers his dialogues with a high degree of composure and emotion. His voice is so precise that it makes one forget there are cuts in the film. There is also enough variation of the shots,  which allows the camera to creatively find as much space in a confined location as possible.  Overall, this is one heck of a ride!

2. Return to Homs (Syria/Germany, Talal Derki)

Return to Homs is an embodiment of ‘Direct Cinema’, a cinematic movement which requires filmmakers to record events unfiltered and as they unfold in real time. In order to capture these raw events, Talal Derki and his crew put their lives on the line. After the Syrian revolution started in 2011, the government shut down the border to all media. Derki and his crew risked their lives to shoot this footage and in many cases, their footage is the only source of truth. As a result, this is more than just a film. It is a living breathing digital document of what happened in Syria when the world was not looking. By the time the world started looking, it was too late. The events in this film are not pleasant but since the film was completed, things have gotten worse. The events in the film are isolated to civil war but in the last few years, terrorism driven by external forces have made things worse in Syria. Return to Homs is one of the most relevant films to have been made in the last few years and is essential to understand why urban warfare is messy and complicated.

3. Enemy (Canada/Spain, Denis Villeneuve)

Enemy transports Jose Saramago’s novel The Double to a David Cronenberg landscape and enhances the material with references to Kafka, George Orwell and Alfred Hitchcock. As a result, this is a film that oozes with symbolism and is packed with delightful little clues and details which leads one through a tangled web of mystery.

4. Memphis (USA, Tim Sutton)

Tim Sutton’s Memphis is a beautiful contemplative film that depicts the fine line between genius and madness. The real coup of the film is casting Willis Earl Beal for the lead. His presence ensures that there are many moments where the film blurs the line between fiction and autobiography. The film shows a successful music artist who is in an envious position where he holds the keys to the kingdom. The problem is that the artist is no longer interested in the kingdom. Witnessing his journey as he drifts across the mystical city of Memphis, peppered with the haunting music of “Too Dry to Cry”, makes for a shattering experience.

5. Under the Skin (UK/USA/Switzerland, Jonathan Glazer)

Locke compressed life into 90 minutes while Under the Skin manages to distill the essence of men in just a few minutes. In the film, it is a woman who is behind the wheel. She cruises the streets of Glasgow looking for able men to prey on. The female is able to assess her subjects with a few glances and extract enough information with few words that allows her to make a quick decision. The sequences where she leads the victims to their final steps are remarkably filmed with an unforgettable score that stays long in the memory after the final credits.

6. Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

Even by the high standard of the Dardenne brothers, Two Days, One Night is a staggering achievement. The film depicts moral and ethical questions that are always present when money is involved. And in Marion Cotillard, the brothers have found a perfect face to convey the range of emotions from desperation to despair and even a touch of hope.

7. The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA/Germany/UK, Wes Anderson)

When the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel first appeared, it looked like a best of Wes Anderson reel, a collection of moments that looked new yet contained his signature. However, the trailer was only an appetizer while the film is the main course and sweet dessert rolled into one memorable experience. The film is a joy to behold, from the sets to the witty dialogue to the pleasant cameos that are sprinkled throughout the film.

8. Welcome to New York (USA, Abel Ferrara)

Welcome to New York charts the entire course of Abel Ferrara’s film style while also presenting a work that threatens to blur the line between reality and fiction. The initial 20 minutes feel like early Ferrara with exhaustive sexual exploits before the film switches gears into a vérité style that on first glance feels at odds with his cinema. However, a jail sequence reveals Ferrara’s hand where he distills the essence of his King of New York in a remarkable jail sequence. In the dialogue-less scene, Gérard Depardieu’s character of Devereaux and the other inmates assess each other, trying to determine who is the the king of the jungle. In the film’s final third, a redemption aspect crops up, without which no Ferrara film would be complete. Depardieu has put in an astonishing performance where he lays it all out in front of the camera. Even though his character faces humiliation, there are a few moments when Devereaux addresses the camera, shattering the fourth wall and tossing judgements back to the audience.

9. Li’l Quinquin (France, Bruno Dumont)

At multiple points in Li’l Quinquin, it is hard to believe that this is a Bruno Dumont directed work as his films don’t exactly invoke humor. Yet there is plenty of humor and sharp observations about French town life shown without any barriers. The film’s biggest pleasure comes from the presence of Bernard Pruvost, whose Commandant Van der Weyden is a cross between Clouseau and Tati’s Mr. Hulot. Li’l Quinquin also shows an auteur variation of True Detective.

10. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel/Germany/France, Ronit Elkabetz/Shlomi Elkabetz)

The opening minutes of the film recall A Separation but very quickly the film dives into Kafkaesque territory with endless rounds of court appearances related to a divorce proceeding. There is some humour at first but matters takes on a darker shade when the couple's private life is examined. Then gradually, everyone around the couple is sucked in and is indirectly put on trial, including the two opposing lawyers. Gett is packed with impressive performances and acute observations about how a law can impact citizens.

11. Joy of Man’s Desiring (Canada, Denis Côté)

Denis Côté is back with a visually mesmerizing and intriguing documentary that explores the factory workplace. The film starts off with some dialogue that indicates a fictional narrative but this is a documentary that examines machinery and their operators. Constantly engaging, the film is pure cinematic bliss. By a strange cosmic fate, this film premiered just a few months before Micheal Glawogger passed away. Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death shows the dangerous and messy jobs some people do to earn a living. Meanwhile, Côté spends a good deal of time showing machinery in a clean environment where workers go daily to earn money. The jobs are not as dangerous as those that Glawogger’s covers but it is clear that the machines in Côté’s film won’t tire like the humans. The workers will eventually be physically and mentally beaten down, thereby making them loosely related to those in Glawogger’s film.

11 Honorable mentions in alphabetical order:

Ankhon Dekhi (India, Rajat Kapoor)
Blue Ruin (USA/France, Jeremy Saulnier) 
Child’s Pose (Romania, Calin Peter Netzer)
Dear Albert (UK, Nick Hamer)
The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas (Greece/Czech Republic, Elina Psikou)
Force Majeure (Sweden/France/Norway, Ruben Östlund)
Goodbye to Language 3D (Switzerland, Jean-Luc Godard)
Haider (India, Vishal Bhardwaj)
Lajwanti (India, Pushpendra Singh)
The Overnighters (USA, Jesse Moss)
Stray Dogs (Taiwan/France, Tsai Ming-liang)

Dear Albert is another example of ‘Direct Cinema’ as the film observes people who are trying to rid of their addiction. Nick Hamer has made an excellent decision by limiting details of the subjects’ substance abuse. This makes the film a universal study about why it is difficult for people to break their habits and change themselves. And when some manage to make a change, the film shows that it is easy to fall back into old habits. It may sound cliched but this is a film that has the potential to change one’s life.

The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas is one of the best films of the New Greek Cinema Wave and is the definitive film about Greece’s economic downfall. The film uses the main character’s plight to reflect how the rest of Europe treated Greece. First there was love and admiration but when things got bad, hatred and isolation. In addition, the film is enhanced with a huge nod towards The Shining.

Pushpendra Singh’s debut feature Lajwanti (or The Honor Keeper) is an eye-popping digital painting that belongs in an art gallery along with Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs. One can clearly see the influence of Amit Dutta and Mani Kaul in Singh’s film but he has also exerted his own unique voice. In order to capture authenticity about village life in the Thar Desert (Rajasthan), Singh has used local non-actors to play themselves. This blurs the line between documentary and fiction. The story is tweaked enough to be timeless with a touch of folk mythology. It is one of the most creative films to have emerged from India this year.