Another year comes and goes full of interesting movies that we’ve watched – as well as a ton of terrible movies that we’re subjected to – and here we gather to remember the best of the bunch. Unlike last year, where it was solely Derek and I picking the cream of the crop, this year we’ve extended our pool to the four members of Dim the House Lights who were around in 2014.
Much like last year though, here’s an inclusion of the films in our respective lists that didn’t quite make the cut into our top ten.
For Derek, those films are: Whiplash, Boyhood, John Wick, Blue Ruin, Listen Up Philip, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, and Only Lovers Left Alive.
For Juan, those films are: Whiplash, Stranger by the Lake, They Came Together, Obvious Child, Interstellar, Tom at the Farm, Selma, and A Most Violent Year.
For Michelle, those films are: The Guest, Enemy, The Dance of Reality, Nymphomaniac, The Rover, Mr. Jones, and Blue Ruin.
For Chris, those films are: The Guest, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, John Wick, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, A Most Wanted Man, Nymphomaniac, and Oculus.
10. The Grand Budapest Hotel (d. Wes Anderson/w. Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness)
Every Wes Anderson film contains the evidence of those that came before it. Ideas, gags, and visual motifs the feature in one film tend to show up in the next. That said, it’s no surprise that The Grand Budapest Hotel has replaced 2012’s delightful Moonrise Kingdom as the most Wes Anderson-y Wes Anderson film. While still about a precocious young man (great newcomer Tony Revolori) and an off-beat father figure (master concierge/gentleman ribald Ralph Fiennes), the film doubles down on Anderson’s knack for impressive set design and camera work while containing the funniest and most violent moments of his career. This is the work of a director who has rediscovered the joy of filmmaking. [DG]
9. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (d. Isao Takahata/w. Isao Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi)
Few cinematic swan songs are as breathtaking and adventurous as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the presumed directorial farewell of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. The animation is phenomenal; you can see the texture of every line in every frame. The style feels lifted from a master painter’s sketchbook, elegant in its simplicity but arresting in its depth and formal intelligence. But Takahata, being the master of the emotional gutpunch that he is, lends incredible pathos to the story. It’s not just a matter of not getting what you want, or even getting what someone else thinks you want; it’s realizing that it was never yours to keep, or your decision to even have in the first place. [DG]
8. Lucy (d./w. Luc Besson)
Of the 2014 films that featured Scarlett Johansson, none suffered as much unfortunate ridicule as Lucy, Luc Besson’s underrated action gambit. Yeah, we get it, the 10 percent brain thing is a myth; who gives a shit? It’s just a device to explore an idea, and it serves its purpose beautifully. Subtle it wasn’t, but subtle is overrated, and watching Lucy barrel between situations while slowly becoming one with the universe was a spectacle to see. Also underrated was Johansson’s performance, which showed off both her most widely respected mode (cold, distant, and paradoxically robotic and unimaginably graceful) and a unique, very warm and powerful humanity. The scene where she calls her mother and describes how it feels to, well, feel the universe as it breathes all around here was a good encapsulation of the film as a whole, proudly uncynical and almost naive in its hope and faith in the ultimate rightness of the universe. It’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on fast forward, except this time made by a man who seems to truly believe in goodness. [MA]
7. Maps to the Stars (d. David Cronenberg/w. Bruce Wagner)
It’s kind of astounding the way that David Cronenberg has managed to keep his career as alive and consistently shifting as he has over nearly fifty years. Maps to the Stars, which is not at all an exception to that rule, is a vicious, consistently scathing, critique of Hollywood, and all the same, it’s one of the funniest films the man has made to date. Cronenberg milks every second of screen time that star Julianne Moore has, her over-the-top performance working perfectly with Bruce Wagner’s script, itself full of juicy dialogue, the kind of quotes that make films a cult classic, and characters who get high, get drunk, fuck their mothers and their lovers, curse each other, start fires, and – as is traditional of Hollywood – remake themselves to fit the scene. If this – and his debut novel Consumed – are any signal of what the years to come hold for the filmmaker, we’re in for a hell of a ride. [JB]
6. Coherence (d./w. James Ward Byrkit)
Mike D’Angelo over at The Dissolve said it best when he reviewed Coherence and called it “an ingenious hybrid of that episode [Twilight Zone‘s “The Monsters are Due On Maple Street”] and Shane Carruth’s Primer.” It’d be a crime to reveal any more of this film because the whole thing thrives off of going in cold upon first viewing. But believe me when I say if you even remotely like any of the above works of art, you will be a fan of Coherence. It’s the kind of low budget feature – one genuinely interested in both delivering thrills and exploring the relationships between the characters it introduces – that’s exciting because of just how many tricks director James Ward Byrkit has up his sleeve. And there’s a whole lot of them to find here. [JB]
T4. Snowpiercer (d. Bong Joon-ho/w. Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson)
“[Tilda Swinton] doesn’t as much chew the scenery as feed it through a meat grinder, punctuating her sentences with sputters and tics. She actually pulls out her fake teeth at one point while begging [Chris] Evans for mercy. That moment is exemplary of the kind of tonal pinball Bong [Joon-ho] likes to play in his films, whipping from ghastly violence to gallows humour and back in the blink of an eye. Rather than compromising the film’s unity, this approach lends a sense of vitality and unpredictability to the way the story is presented. The genius of Snowpiercer isn’t its story or its premise, but how Bong brings it to life.” [DG, Full Review]
T4. Inherent Vice (d./w. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Every generation gets the Big Lebowski it deserves, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s doper detective story more than earns that title. Like the Coen brothers film, Inherent Vice is a great Los Angeles movie. It’s incredibly funny and as amusingly labyrinthine as the hardbolied fiction it’s indebted to. But Doc Sportello is a more self-aware figure than the Dude, confused about people’s motives and worried about what the future holds. This humanity ultimately makes the film a stronger piece of work, along with Anderson’s knack for writing incredible two-handers and Pynchon’s dense, impeccably-crafted prose. [DG]
3. The Babadook (d./w. Jennifer Kent)
“How else do you combine the art house and the genre picture so successfully without them bouncing off each other in contrast? Jennifer Kent must be some sort of magician to get the whole thing to not only work but absolutely kill. Her craft is stunning and impeccable, recalling things as chronologically disparate as German Expressionism and the modern ghost movie and finding ways to meld it all together into a seamless whole. And all for her first feature film! There are times experiencing art where you can see something iconic being created. “Can’t miss” and “must see” are cliché phrases at this point, but if any horror film in 2014 is essential viewing, it’s this one.” [MA, Full Review]
2. The Raid 2 (d./w. Gareth Evans)
“When The Raid: Redemption crash-landed into the collective consciousness earlier this decade, it was hailed as a watershed moment in the history of action cinema. No other film in recent memory at that point was so single-mindedly, ferociously dedicated to cinematic hand-to-hand combat. It felt like the purest possible iteration of a genre that only seems to thrive now on direct-to-video; the action film as a vehicle for clear, unostentatious ass-kicking. Not to mention that the film found a perfect balance between the brutality of the relentless athletic displays on screen and the graceful, unobtrusive craft of stringing them together coherently. […] I don’t like to give the title of “instant classic” to anything, but I do strongly believe that this will become a totemic piece of action cinema, to be pored over and studies by aficionados and academics alike.” [DG, Full Review]
1. Under the Skin (d./w. Jonathan Glazer)
Under the Skin was the most insightful movie about humanity released in 2014, which is odd precisely because it is so unwaveringly inhuman. Rarely before has a movie made the viewer feel so distant to their own world. As we follow Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien character as she goes about her day, picking up human men only to bring them “home” to a massive, endlessly expansive black room to be harvested for an unknown purpose, we see the banal and the normal from the eye of an outsider looking in. To see people flood the Scottish streets felt like watching a nature documentary about deep sea fish, grotesque and fascinating at the same time, but rarely understandable; it seems like these things have a purpose, but divining that feels near impossible and deeply confusing, so we watch with dispassion as the numbers swell and shrink, swell and shrink, like waves on a shore where senseless tragedies happen day in and day out.
As Johansson’s character becomes more human, more vulnerable, we feel bad for her that she has to enter this world full of such suffering. Both kindness and cruelty feel disturbing and unfamiliar, and every time it seems like we’ve got a handle on things they slip away, receding back into the roiling chaos of humanity. There’s books worth of essays to talk about the film’s gender politics, its philosophical and ethical questions, its gorgeous cinematography and score, its pointed abstraction, and its documentary gaze, but the feeling it gives is what makes those essays worth writing in the first place; when you finish watching it, walk outside your house, and see if the people passing by don’t look different, stranger, in ways you can barely describe. The uncanny valley not of human likeness but human behavior. [MA]