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Oliver Lyttelton’s Top 15 Films Of 2014

Oliver Lyttelton's Top 15 Films Of 2014

This year we compiled an aggregated Playlist Best Films Of The Year which you can find here. However, regular contributors were also given the chance to submit personal lists. Here’s the rest of our substantial year-end coverage, among which you’ll find other personal top ten lists from our staff. 

I’m not sure I considered 2014 a great year for film until I sat down to put this list together and found myself with a longlist of at least fifty movies. That’s perhaps because the greatness was spread wider than usual: lots of ace, esoteric indies in the spring, a surprisingly strong slate of blockbusters in the summer, and some strong prestige pictures in the fall (even if many of the films actually likely to be Oscar nominated are a bit milquetoast for my taste), plus killer festival fare throughout.

As usual, I’m slightly on own my schedule — as a British writer for mostly U.S. outlets who sees a big chunk of my viewing list at festivals, I’ve ignored release dates and just picked from the new movies I saw between January 1st and December 31st. That means that some movies that made it to theaters in 2014 (and which I voted for in our more release-date-specific Best FIlms Of The Year poll) were things I saw last year — “Under The Skin,” “Ida,” “Only Lovers Left Alive,” “Starred Up” and “Snowpiercer,” among others, were on my list in 2013.

Anyway, I’m not going to bang on too much, as I’ve done more than enough of that below. Thanks for reading this year, and happy new year to you all. Oh, and here’s one last plug for the trailer for the short film I wrote this year – all being well, it’ll be on the festival circuit in 2015…

15. “Paddington
Paul King’s adaptation of the British family classic is not a film I imagined I’d have on this list a year ago: some talented people were involved, but the worry was that the film would end up being a sort of homegrown version of the “Garfield” or “Marmaduke” movies, lowest-common denominator kids fare for a cheap buck. Even after strong early reviews, I was going in a skeptic, but dammit if “Paddington” didn’t charm my pants off (I can only apologize for that image). As funny as any mainstream comedy this year, beautifully crafted and legitimately moving, it’s about as good a family film as has been made since Pixar were last good. But the reason I really connected with it came down to a couple of things: firstly, the film’s as gorgeous a love letter to London — my birthplace, home, and favorite place in the world — as has been made in years. And secondly, at a time when laughable far-right anti-immigration party UKIP are making depressing gains in British politics, the biggest hit of Christmas in the country’s cinemas was an unashamed celebration of the benefits of immigration. That it could do both of those things while still being a treat for the eyes, heart and funny bone feels sort of miraculous.

14. “The Tale Of Princess Kaguya”
I’m a relatively new convert to Studio Ghibli, only in the last few years or so, but reports that the Japanese animation titans would no longer be making films still felt like the end of an era. But between “The Wind Rises” (which was on my list last year) and this, seemingly the final film from “Grave Of The Fireflies” director Isao Takahata, the company went out on a hell of a high note. Takahata is sort of the quieter, more undervalued George Harrison to the more obvious fireworks of Miyazaki’s Lennon/McCartney, and “The Tale Of Princess Kaguya” makes that clearer than ever: a simple, delicate fable about the beautiful plant-baby gifted to a childless couple, who grows up swiftly to be courted by the wealthiest suitors in the land. Hand-drawn in a sense that doesn’t just feel like the traditional Ghibli style, but more like a pastoral, impressionistic storybook come to life (one sequence, as Kaguya flees her home, is eye-meltingly beautiful), and steeped in allegory — there’s a feminist message here, an environmental one — it’s also a film about the end. There’s a ticking clock on Kaguya from the moment she arrives, and its haunting, bittersweet conclusion doesn’t just feel like a goodbye to the central character, but to the people that made it too. (A special shout-out too to the excellent documentary “The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness,” which gives an essential insight into the processes of Miyazaki and Takahata as they make their final movies).

13. “Dear White People
I’d been taken with the provocative trailers for Justin Simien’s Sundance smash “Dear White People,” but wasn’t prepared for the film as a whole. Yes, the post-Obama racial satire about African-American students at an Ivy League campus was full of sharp and witty jokes and pokes at every possible side of the agenda. But it was its scope and compassion, as well as the outstanding cast, that made me fall head over heels for it. Simien’s script (one of the best all year) is a sort of cinematic take on the campus novel, building a place that might not actually exist, but you feel like you know by heart by the time the credits roll. It’s populated with fascinating folk too, from Dennis Haysbert’s steamrollered, kowtowing vice-dean to Tessa Thompson’s firebrand activist with a secret Taylor Swift-loving softer side (the latter being one of my absolute favorite performances of the year). It’s occasionally a bit uneven, but this was one of the headiest, most thought-provoking and happily uncomfortable experiences I had in a cinema this year, while also being compassionate and funny throughout.

12. “The Babadook
In general, I’m not a horror movie person, thanks to the endless interchangeable slasher flicks, found-footage exorcism movies, or basement torture pictures. Then something like “The Babadook” comes along, and it reminds me that if every horror flick was like this one, I’d totally be a horror movie guy. Jennifer Kent’s expertly made little chiller, about an overworked mother, her difficult child and a storybook that promises worse to come, works like gangbusters as a genre film, never relying on jump scares or gore, but instead sticking its long, splindy hands into your skin, grabbing your nerves and jangling the living hell out of you. But “The Babadook” works even better as a surprisingly rigorous metaphor, for grief and post-partum depression and for learning to love a child that isn’t always lovable. Shot with both control and flair, and with an astonishingly raw performance from Essie Davis, it didn’t just make me love it, it put me back in love with films like it too.

11. “20,000 Days On Earth”/”The Possibilities Are Endless
Yes, I’m cheating here. But a double-bill of these two music-docs-that-aren’t-really-music-docs-but-also-kind-of-are makes too much sense not to be put together. Iain Forsythe and Jane Pollard’s portrait of Nick Cave, and Edward Lovelace and James Hall’s film about Orange Juice frontman Edwyn Collins are in many ways quite different. The former’s an artfully artificial reconstruction of 24 hours in the life of the murder ballad-loving Bad Seeds legend, digging into his mind and memories more than his actual day-to-day, while the latter’s an abstracted-to-the-point-of-experimentation examination of Collins’ life-threatening stroke, and his gradual recovery from it. But they’re united by a refusal to conform to the creaky old template of the musical documentary, playing with form in a way that doesn’t just liven up the stories they’re telling, it enhances them. They’re both something like tone poems: the Cave film is a sort of “Holy Motors” wallow in the man’s soul, the Collins one a fragmented love letter/take down to the fickle, fucked-up human brain, which can decide to try to kill you for no reason one minute, then lets you fight your way back the next. They’re both worth watching individually, but together, they’re a great revival-house double-bill in the making.

10. “Blind
With his two films to date, “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st,” Joachim Trier has become one of the most exciting filmmakers around, with films that are literate but cinematic, thoughtful but visual, intellectual but emotional. But with “Blind,” Trier’s co-writer Eskil Vogt suggests that he might have been the quiet power in the partnership, with a film that’s perhaps even more rich and surprising than Trier’s. Like a sort of Scandi-Charlie Kaufman, Vogt sets up a fascinating meta-narrative following Ingrid (the unbelievably excellent Ellen Dorrit Petersen), who’s recently lost her sight, and who starts imagining the lives of a lonely, porn-obsessed man (Marius Kolbenstvedt), and a sweet-natured single mother (Vera Vitali), the latter of whom begins an affair with Ingrid’s husband. It’s ambitious, potentially mind-bending stuff, but Vogt pulls it together into something surprisingly rigorous, the various strands and figures ultimately adding up to a portrait of one person’s fears and insecurities, while also (or, maybe, obviously) proving to be a genuinely smart and insightful look at what it is to be a writer. And that might be the magic of it: cinema’s an inherently exterior art form, and yet Vogt, like Trier before him, have made a truly interior film, and yet made it as cinematic as anything else here.

9. “The Keeping Room
Stark, spare and brutal, “The Keeping Room” is a stripped-down Western (albeit one that never moves more than a few hundred miles from the East Coast) that proves the power, and potency, of the little genre film. The set up is relatively simple; two sisters (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld, the former a total revelation here), and their slave (awesome newcomer Muna Otaru) wait at home in the Carolinas as the Civil War rages on, their mother long dead, their father and brother at war, and maybe — probably, even — dead too. The Union army marches on, and a life-and-death situation leads a pair of scouts (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller — and this is a film so brilliant that even Sam Worthington is good in it) toward the women. It’s one-part minimalist home-invasion thriller, one-part badass feminist revenge pic, but Julia Hart’s unexpectedly dense, complex screenplay gives the film a weight that belies the pared-down genre origins, never letting its heroines off while also giving them time to breath. And director Daniel Barber (a stylish commercials helmer who was Oscar-nominated for short “The Tonto Woman,”  got off on the wrong features foot with reactionary vigilante thriller “Harry Brown”) is unrelenting as he milks both tension and meaning from the set-up. There might be more ambitious movies this year or next, but few will be as well-executed from top to bottom as “The Keeping Room.”

8. “Frank
Frank” is a deeply sad little film about mental illness, disguised under a papier-mâché head as a funny little film about a rock band. Lenny Abrahamson’s weird gem (from a killer script by Jon Ronson, whose real-life experiences informed it, and secret-greatest-screenwriter-working Peter Straughan) is a film of layers. Initially, it’s a sort of hipster satire, as Domhnall Gleeson’s ambitious, untalented songwriter latches on to an art-pop band and becomes party to their bizarre recording method. Then it becomes a sort of music-industry expose, as the Soronprfbs accidentally blow up through social media and become hot stuff at SXSW. These layers are smart, and funny, and full of great, unsung performances, like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s abrasive right-hand woman, and Scoot McNairy’s hanging-on-by-a-thread-of-sanity manager. But it’s in the film’s last half-hour that it soars, as Abrahamson and co take off their masks to reveal that its quirky outsider art has been hiding, and even excusing, serious, irrevocable damage. And that maybe that isn’t even a bad thing.

7. “Gone Girl
Seven.” “Fight Club.” “Zodiac.” “The Social Network.” Even-numbered David Fincher films are, quite clearly, the best David Fincher films, the one where he lets himself off the leash and has a little fun. Thankfully, “Gone Girl,” even if it felt initially like a gig for hire, followed the pattern, with the director teaming with Gillian Flynn and her gleefully nasty novel and script and ending up with a movie that transcends its pulpy origins. It’s not especially effective as a thriller, but then Fincher and Flynn rarely seem particularly interested in making it work as a thriller. Instead, it’s a jet-black comedy digging its fangs into women, men, marriage and the media, Chayefsky by way of Mazursky, or maybe Mazursky by way of Chayefsky, taking (like many of my favorites this year) a tiny story and blowing it up into something huge. Fincher doesn’t let a frame go spare, Flynn admirably retools her book into something doubly effective, and every performer, from Rosamund Pike’s revelatory two-faced leading lady and Ben Affleck’s repurposing of his shallow charm to Tyler Perry’s smooth operator and Carrie Coon’s moral and emotional center, excels. It’s a sick, fucked-up, strangely personal film: that it was a giant, giant hit is reason to retain faith in mainstream cinema.

6. “Two Days, One Night”
That feeling we’ve all had? That lurching, nauseous feeling, when you’re lying awake when you should be asleep, thinking about your bank balance, and how insubstantial it is, and how many things you have to pay before it goes up — if it ever goes up — and what the hell you’re going to do about it? That’s the feeling that Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bottled and released with “Two Days, One Night,” a gorgeously simple drama that might be their best film ever (no mean feat), and that has at its center a performance that might be Marion Cotillard’s finest (also no mean feat). The star plays a woman who, after struggling with depression, has been let go by her company, but has less than 48 hours to convince her co-workers to agree to vote away their bonus so she can keep her job. It’s at once plottier and more episodic than we’re used to from the Belgian greats, an airtight screenplay drawing from classic melodrama (“Twelve Angry Men,” oddly, feels like a touchstone), with every potential viewpoint on its central dilemma represented through the Dardennes’ compassionate lens. But it also never feels like an exercise, and so much of that is down to Cotillard’s all-timer of a performance: fragile, steely and finely nuanced, she instantly makes you forget her megastar status. All that, plus one of the greatest, most worth-aspiring-to screen marriages in recent memory.

5. “Leviathan
All cinema is political, but some films are more political than others. Nothing I saw this year felt quite as brave, urgent or necessary* as “Leviathan,” given that 2014 was the year that Vladimir Putin locked down his transition from “repellent dickhead” to “actual despot.” That a film as daring and unabashed as this could come from Andrei Zvyagintsev, perhaps Russia’s most notable emerging filmmaker, and someone who was taking his career in his hands as a result, is pretty remarkable. That he could make a film that feels as masterful as this as narrative, and as cinema, while hitting his political targets is doubly so. Centering on a small-town feud between mechanic Kolya and his corrupt mayor, but blossoming out into a state-of-the-nation portrait, it’s a bit like finding an uncovered classic by some great dead Russian writer: bleak, vodka-sodden, darkly funny, sprawling, focused, soulful and searing. It’s the kind of film you want to pull over yourself like a blanket, except that you suspect that the blanket wouldn’t do much to help in the borderline-apocalyptic Tarkovskyan landscapes in which Zvyagintsev sets his tale. Of all the films here, this is the one that I suspect I’m only just beginning to unpack, and I can’t think of many higher compliments than that.
*I haven’t seen “Selma” yet…

4. “’71”
In the U.K. at least (the film doesn’t open in the U.S. til next month), I came late to the “’71” train: the film had been getting raves since Berlin, and though I didn’t see it at the London Film Festival, I’d heard nothing but glowing things about Yann Demange’s directorial debut. And yet when I finally saw it, late in the day, it didn’t just match my expectations, it exceeded them. Penned by playwright Gregory Burke, the film’s on one hand a stripped-down thriller, as a British squaddie (Jack O’Connell who is, as usual, astounding) is left behind by his comrades in hostile Belfast, targeted both by Irish Republicans, and, after witnessing some nefarious special forces dealings, his own side. It’s a terrific action movie, with Demange (who came up through U.K. TV like “Topboy”) showing an immediate command for controlled chaos, giving the film a visceral quality without letting it slip into shaky-cam incoherence, and sustaining the tension to the extent that we don’t recall drawing breath in the film’s final hour. But it’s also more than that: Burke’s screenplay perfectly captures the political landscape of the time and place (aided by great character actors like Richard Dormer and Sean Harris), showing the danger of the situation without demonizing either side. It’s even-handed without being neutral, if you see what I mean (war is “posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts,” as one character puts it). It’s not straight Greengrass-style docudrama either: David Holmes’ pulsating score and Tat Radcliffe’s top-notch photography give proceedings a hellish, almost hallucinatory impressionism that sustains a mood that lingers long after your heart-rate returns to normal.

3. “Tu Dors Nicole
I fell deeply and instantly for “Tu Dors Nicole” in Cannes this year, and have been dismayed to see it seemingly fail to pick up U.S. or U.K. distribution (it’s only been released in its native Quebec so far), enough so that it’s the first time I’ve ever contemplated, in some of my drunker nighttime moments, putting the damn thing out myself. Hopefully someone with deeper pockets than me steps up, because it’s a total delight of a film, with rhythms and shots that have rattled around my brain ever since. On paper, it’s a fairly familiar tale: aimless twentysomething Nicole is meant to spend the summer housesitting, with her best friend, while her parents are away, but ends up having to share the place with his brother and her bandmates. Made up of scenes that aren’t so much episodes as snippets (one of the reasons the film’s been compared, only semi-helpfully, to “Frances Ha”), it’s full of deadpan comic absurdity that shows director Stephane LaFleur to have almost supernatural facility with framing and cutting a gag for maximum effect. But as it goes on, it also settles into a bittersweet melancholy and woozy, waking-dream tone all of its own, going further and deeper into the I-don’t-know-what-to-do-now-I’m-an-adult sub-genre than is usual, as Nicole confronts her listlessness, and the sadness and heartbreak that’s a fact of life as an adult (Julianne Cote, who plays her, is phenomenal). The handful of other critics who also saw it at various festivals seem to be equally smitten: let’s hope others get a chance to fall in love with it themselves.

2. “Foxcatcher
Sometimes there’s a little bit of competition as to who gets to review what at Cannes, but when it came to “Foxcatcher,” I was happy to hand it over to Jess (who nailed it, as per). I’d walked out of Bennett Miller’s latest dazed and reeling, and needed a little time to unpack a film that was at once so tiny and so enormous. I probably still need that time (or at least a second viewing), but my feeling that this is the masterpiece of a director who’s only made great films so far has certainly crystalized. Miller is dismissed by some of the more fervent auteurists out there, but one only has to see a snippet of him in conversation or interview to see how his quiet intelligence is reflected in his work, and it rings out with every shot or decision in this, his wrenching, messed-up semi-platonic love triangle between put-together family man wrestler Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), his less secure, more easily led brother Mark (Channing Tatum), and eccentric, mentally ill millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell). It could be a sparse three-hander, but Miller blows it up into something massive, an examination of America, the privilege bought by immense, unearned wealth, the emotional toll of failure, and brotherhood, both literal and figurative. For all of the greatness of the direction, Greig Fraser’s photography (35mm-4-eva), Rob Simonsen’s chilly score, and the script, by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, it’s a film that lives and dies on its performances, and while Ruffalo’s greatness is expected by now, Carell and Tatum are both astonishing, the former pitiably monstrous, the latter monstrously pitiable. A major, major work of American cinema.

1. “Eden
Given that we’re told that sixty is the new forty, forty is the new thirty, and thirty is the new thirteen, it’s not surprising that one of the predominant themes (mostly, it should be said, in comedies) of cinema in the 21st century has been that of arrested development, men-children (and women-children), clinging to their adolescence and resisting adulthood. Plus, you know, comic book movies. But the Peter Pan generation got the film that might be their defining statement in 2014 with “Eden,” Mia Hansen-Løve’s epic, yet intimate story of the French dance music scene, and the medium-talent DJ (Felix De Givry) who passes through it (mostly) unchanged and unaged). Like Antoine Doinel in “Almost Famous” on a ton of molly, Givry’s Paul goes from bedroom DJ coming up — pun intended — alongside Daft Punk in the early 1990s to the guy playing a boat party high off his face while his old friends persuade their toddlers to dance. Hansen-Løve takes the strengths of her previous work and builds on them: what you don’t see is as important as what you do, but there’s a terrific specificity to the scenes that you do that somehow only makes the film it more universal. The result is that you feel like you’ve grown up alongside Paul, seen his stasis mirror, and eventually contrast, with your own, and eventually reached a kind of quiet elation as he starts to get his shit together. Rich, novelistic and with finely tuned performances from everyone who comes on screen (who sketch out the other stories in the margin of Paul’s), it’s also borderline groundbreaking in the way that it takes dance music seriously in a cinematic way. Which obviously means that it has the best soundtrack of the year too. “Boyhood” was for many the film of the year, but for me, it was another slowly-coming-of-age tale about the passage of time and the things we leave behind.

I Also Loved (in alphabetical order):A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” “Girlhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Godzilla,” “A Hard Day,” “Inherent Vice,” “It Follows,” “The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness,” “The Lego Movie,” “Listen Up Phillip,” “Mr. Turner,” “National Gallery,” “Neighbors,” “Nightcrawler,” “Obvious Child,” “Pride,” “Timbuktu,” “War Book” and “Whiplash.”

I Also Really, Really Liked (in alphabetical order):Blue Ruin,” “Boyhood,” “Coherence,” “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes,” “The Dog,” “Enemy,” “The Falling,” “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” “Harmontown,” “Ilo Ilo,” “Interstellar,” “Laggies,” “Life Itself,” “Noah,” “The Rover,” “Testament Of Youth,” “The Voices,” “Wild Tales” and “Zero Motivation.”

I Haven’t Yet Seen: “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year,” which don’t open in the U.K. til 2015, and which I couldn’t get to screenings of in advance — given other people’s reactions to them, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if either would have made the list. 

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