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Nikola Grozdanovic: Top 20 Films Of 2014

Nikola Grozdanovic: Top 20 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. This is the first of these rundowns, more are to come, and for all the rest of our substantial year-end coverage, click here

Most critics have already released their top films of the year, but, as ever, I pant and scramble to the back of the queue, with a heavy heart for movies unseen, trying to write presentably as I whittle down my favourites. It’s a cathartic bit of business, and its narcissistic nature is like a little volcano with spittles of erupting magma that resides in all of us. In Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar,” during a highly pressurized docking moment, the logical robot CASE warns Matthew McConaughey‘s Cooper: “This is not possible.” Cooper’s response is the same one I’d give someone confronting me with the impossibility of a ranked list of preference; “No, it’s necessary.”

A film critic spends most of his or her time of the calendar year lost in worlds not their own, and the end of the year presents an opportunity to summarize all the good times they’ve had in these worlds. That’s the main criterion for me when sifting through all the films released in a given year to narrow down the very best 10 or 20: has it pulled me into its world, and successfully kept me there? Have I left the theatre questioning my surroundings, the people who surround me, and myself, more? We can discuss films all the live long day amongst ourselves (stimulating discussion, another important, if not obvious, criterion), but watching them is ultimately a solitary journey. When making a best-of list, all you’re essentially doing is talking about yourself through your taste in movies, and for critics, that’s necessary (on top of being really, really, fun).

Critics I have deep respect and admiration for have already churned out their lists (Stephanie Zacharek of the Village Voice, Justin Chang from Variety, Robbie Collin of London’s Telegraph, everyone at The Dissolve and A.V. Club, Slate’s Dana Stevens, David Ehrlich’s Video Countdown, etc. etc.) and, of course, I’ve participated in staff-voting and write ups for the two outlets I contribute to; The Playlist and Way Too Indie. Now, in my own little corner, where I can rank my own individual list the way I want to, I hope to shed a little light on what my tastes say about me. But first, a few provisos:

The Rules
Everything that’s officially been released in North America during the calendar year of 2014. (I’ve already started my 2015 list with some of the wonderful films I’ve seen at festivals, but those will have to wait).

Why 20? Why not 10?
2014 has been a glorious year. I’ve been to more festivals than ever before, and kept getting more and more astounded by what I saw. 10 seems like an incredulous number for such an incredible year. I even struggled with 20.

Films that I wasn’t able to see due to lack of time or accessibility (mostly the latter), that could have potentially made an impact on the list
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice”
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman”
Ava DuVernay’s “Selma”
J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year”
Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language”
Jesse Moss’ “The Overnighters”
Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour”

Films I have seen but under unworthy circumstances and should re-watch before thinking about where they would land in my top 20 (which they most probably would have)

Rithy Pahn’s “The Missing Picture”
Lav Diaz’s “Norte, The End of History”
Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises”

Right, then. Cue the music, crack the knuckles, and click next for my Top 20 Films of 2014.

20. “MANAKAMANA” (dir. Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez)

Watching various passengers go to, and then from, a sacred place in Nepal in the Manakamana cable car, without cutting or panning way for the duration of a single roll of film (equivalent to a one-way trip on the gurney), turns out to be two of the most introspective and culturally meaningful hours spent in front of a screen. Yes, some passengers are more interesting than others, but all come with life’s baggage that you can’t help but desire to unpack in those 8 or so minutes spent observing them. A monumental achievement by The Sensory Ethnography Lab, which is quickly turning out to be my favourite place where documentaries are brought to be born. Read my capsule on “Manakamana” for The Playlist’s 22 Best Documentaries of the Year.

19. “The Immigrant” (dir. James Gray)

Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner turn out wonderfully alive performances, and with James Gray directing, Darius Khondji photographing, and Chris Spelman scoring, the film becomes a teleportation device back to New York City circa 1920s. What’s more, it’s a remarkably original story without the usual plot conventions and character developments, yet it’s imbibed in history so much so that you feel there must be so many more like it, plucked from the reality of immigration and longing for that elusive and utopian ideal known as The American Dream.

Read my analysis of “The Immigrant’s” final shot (if you’ve seen the film) for The Playlist’s 12 Best Shots of the Year.

18. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (dir. Wes Anderson)

This is my favorite accomplishment in cinematography of the year, and the culminate result of a long-time collaboration between Wes Anderson and Robert Yeoman. But the greatness of this immensely pleasurable film only starts with the framing and lighting. Boasting one of my favourite Ralph Fiennes performances ever, leading a long line of talented actors behind him (Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton and Tony Revolori also stand out), and possibly my very favourite Alexandre Desplat composition, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is all of Anderson’s powers and talents rolled into one crowning achievement of writing and direction. Watch Way Too Indie’s video analysis of Wes Anderson’s visual style.

17. “Mr. Turner” (dir. Mike Leigh)
Mike Leigh has been a long-time favourite of mine. His peculiar working methods (working extra closely with actors to bring characters to life, and writing the script while shooting) leaves room for some of the most naturalistic and mercurial connections with a movie. Now, imagine how well that works when he takes on the tricky biopic genre and makes it work. Timothy Spall in the role of his lifetime, embodies J.M.W. Turner so much so that you feel like you’re right there with him every step of the way. The film is intensely tangible, made all the more luminous by Dick Pope’s resplendent photography and Leigh’s masterful direction.

Read my original review out of Cannes from Way Too Indie.

16. “The LEGO Movie” (dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)

This one got slightly bumped higher throughout the months because laughter proved to be much-needed medicine this year. Losing one of my favourite actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and an actor who will always remain part of my childhood (Robin Williams) reminds me of how much we are in need of films like “The LEGO Movie.” Lord and Miller take on a consumerist product and turn out one of the funniest, most creative, and contagiously positive animated films of the year, by sticking to the basics and remembering the ideal essence behind the toy: nurturing imagination. Read my one-sentence review on The Grapevine.

15. “Only Lovers Left Alive” (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Bless Jim Jarmusch for bringing back cool to the cinematic vampire lore. With indispensable help from Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and John Hurt, “Only Lovers Left Alive” seems to truly get what it must be like to walk the earth as an immortal; essentially, very depressing. The concept Jarmusch creates with the immortality of art (through books and music) as the only true companion a vampire could possibly have is nothing short of genius, which allows for the film to resonate in more ways than the average Jarmusch film. It’s so good, I’ll even forgive its Shakespeare disses. Read Jessica Kiang’s Cannes review for The Playlist.

14. “A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness” (dir. Ben Rivers & Ben Russell)

One of those films that just stick on to you long after the credits roll. I’ve first watched this film in the beginning of the year as it was part of my Way Too Indie colleague’s choices for Best of the Year So Far. Since then, I’ve seen it one more time, and its powers of persuasion are undeniable. Structured into three verses, concerning distinctly different environments, musician Robert A.A. Lowe plays the human vessel we follow around as he mingles, survives, lives, and participates. The final act, involving Black Metal music, is the closest any film came this year to being transcendental. Read my review for The Playlist.

13. “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)

Here I thought Jarmusch made the year’s greatest vampire film, when out comes Iranian-born Ana Lily Amirpour with her very first feature, knocking it out of the park. I’ve mostly connected with this film because of its uniquely feminist approach and how Amirpour so delightfully turns the tables on age-old conventions of “the female as victim,” starting with its brilliant title and all the way through Sheila Vand‘s magnetic performance as The Girl. Topping it off is gorgeous black and white cinematography and one the year’s greatest soundtracks, showing how music and image can intertwine and fall in love so effortlessly. The White Lies‘ “Death” scene is one of my favourites of the year. Read my review on The Grapevine.

12. “Interstellar” (dir. Christopher Nolan)

It’s the greatest blockbuster of the year, which should come as no surprise since it’s directed by the greatest blockbuster director we’ve had in forever. What is a surprise is that Nolan’s “Interstellar” wasn’t nearly as well received as his “Inception” and as much as the film has its proponents (currently at 8.9/10 on IMDb), it has its loud detractors as well (currently at 73% on Rotten Tomatoes). As such, it’s curiously underrated, which boggles my mind when I think about the ensemble acting on display (more people would be talking about McConaughey if his McConaissance wasn’t capped off with an Oscar last year), the relentlessly powerful themes and messages, and one of the year’s most glorious visual spectacles. Read my review on The Grapevine. Read my “Interstellar” cap in The Playlist’s Most Overrated and Underrated Films of the Year.

11. “Under The Skin” (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Jonathan Glazer’s mysterious and compelling “Under the Skin” is one of those films that could end up topping a future “Best of 2010s” or “Best Films of 15 Years in The New Millennium” list, but to say I don’t need more time with it would be a lie. It has the allure of everything that pulls me towards cinema, it kept me in its world for the most part, it contains some of my favourite existential ideas of what it means to be human, and Scarlett Johansson gives an iconic performance. As I sift through its gamut of cinematic riches, it will balance on the edge of my Top 10 for now.

Read my Most Thought-Provoking Sci-Fi Films of The Century So Far feature.

10. “Nightcrawler” (dir. Dan Gilroy)

Gilroy makes his film debut here, showing how much he’s learned from big brother Tony and others because he directs like a veteran. Jake Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his career (which is saying something because it comes at the heels of a slew of terrific turns) as Lou Bloom, a vicious character who represents everything that is so charming and wrong with today’s corporate ladder-climbing world. That it boasts Robert Elswitt‘s night time photography, a resurgent Rene Russo, and the year’s greatest original screenplay successfully paying homage to the likes of “Network” and “Taxi Driver,” is a forbidden fruit on top of an already devilishly delicious cake.Read my Way Too Indie review.

9. “The Babadook” (dir. Jennifer Kent)

Seeing this late in the game proved to be a blessing, because here we have another female-directed first feature and it knocked me sideways with its originality, ability to crawl under my skin and shake me up from the inside out. And I saw it in daytime. Essie Davis gives one of the year’s greatest performances as a single mother on the verge of sanity as she tries to cope with her temperamental son (Noah Wiseman, in the year’s greatest child performance). What’s so attractive in “The Babadook” is that Kent uses motherhood as the springboard to tell a vivid nightmare, making you simultaneously appreciative of the depth of a mother’s love and frightfully afraid of its consequence on the fragile individual’s psyche. Read my take on the film’s poster for The Playlist’s Best 20 Posters of the Year. Read Ananda Dillon’s Way Too Indie review.

8. “Gone Girl” (dir. David Fincher)

In a year that’s been so fantastic for female-driven films (both behind and in front of the camera), none come as close as David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” in taking a quantum leap in the male-female dynamic and turning the tables in such entertaining and technically brilliant fashion. With his trusted team of composers, cinematographer and editor, Fincher joins forces with best-selling author Gillian Flynn, makes a star out of Rosamund Pike, turns Ben Affleck‘s sleazy undercoating into an asset, and introduces the world to the wonderful Carrie Coon. As is usually the case with Fincher, there is perhaps no better directing class this year than studying “Gone Girl.” A pop song turned into a symphony. Read Joshua Rothman’s essay in The New Yorker.

7. “Boyhood” (dir. Richard Linklater)

Undoubtedly the most organic film of the year, Richard Linklater experimented with an idea of filming a single story over the course of 12 years and his gamble has paid off. Linklater’s 12 Years A Boy sees Mason (Ellar Coltrane) come into age right in front of us, as he grows up from about 7 to 19, in a film that features no villains or heros or conventional conflicts, but the toils of ordinary life. The seamless editing, the natural performances from parents Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, the inconspicuously lifelike screenplay, and most of all Linklater’s flowing direction and ability to tap into universal childhood moments, make “Boyhood” redefine what we think of as “slice-of-life” films and set a new standard for coming-of-age tales. Read A.V. Club’s review.

6. “Stray Dogs” (dir. Tsai-Ming Liang)

It’s been over a year since I’ve seen Tsai-Ming Liang’s tremendously affecting “Stray Dogs,” but its cinematic clutches have yet to release me from captivity. Following a marginalized group of people in the outskirts of Tawain, the film is poetry in long-take form and a depiction of harsh life unlike anything else put on screen. The director’s reputation in the arthouse world as an artist in stark opposition to established narrative convention pays off tenfold here. Stupendously long takes of people staring at murals, a man going through life’s cycle with a piece of cabbage, and the most gorgeous dilapidated wallpaper I’ve ever set eyes on, “Stray Dogs” breaks barriers and creates a new cinematic language all its own. Read Oliver Lyttelton’s description of a seminal shot from “Stray Dogs” in The Playlist’s Best Shots feature.

5. “Ida” (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

I’ve conceded that Yeoman’s photography in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is my favorite of the year, but Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski‘s photography for “Ida” is surely the year’s best. Every frame in this luminous, deeply emotional, film deserves to be hung up in some museum and analyzed for the feelings and history it evokes. Another brilliant example of a female-led story (led by two magnificent performers in Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska) is also Pawlikowski’s most personal film to date as it’s the first time he’s filmed in his native Poland. A story of a girl on the verge of becoming a catholic nun only to learn her true Jewish roots is at once the year’s greatest road trip film and the most gorgeous picture of the year, with plenty of beauty inside as much as out.
Read Dana Stevens’ review for Slate.

4. “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her” (dir. Ned Benson)

Ned Benson’s project saw various transformations thanks to its unique structure but I’m including it in my top 5 films as it was originally intended and presented at TIFF in 2013. Two volumes of a single book, two sides of the same coin, and two stanzas of the same poem; “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is the story of a break-up between Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain, continuing her surge) and her boyfriend Connor (James McAvoy in his greatest performance to date), and the film’s structure of presenting “Him” and “Her” versions of the same experience is one of the boldest, smartest, and most enriching pieces of cinema I’ve seen in a very long time. Read my original TIFF review for The Playlist.

3. “Winter Sleep” (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

The Palme d’Or winner this year was always going to factor into my Top 10. I knew that the moment I stepped out of the theatre, dumbfounded and knees all wobbly. Ceylan’s previous film “Once Upon A Time in Anatolia” was one of my favourites from that year, but he’s found a way to top it with “Winter Sleep;” a perfectly in-tune film about a once-upon-a-time theatre actor who’s turned into a hotel-owning curmudgeon (portrayed with bottomless depth by Haluk Bilginer), it’s at once a chamber piece and an opera of the human condition. The conversations are written and performed with such subtle vigor; they make you forget you’re watching a screen. My original review from Cannes for Way Too Indie.

2. “Nymphomaniac” (dir. Lars von Trier)

Much like my #4 entry, Lars von Trier’s monumental 4 1/2 hour epic is included in my top 5 in its complete form. I’m in the minority of critics who appreciated both Vol. I and Vol. II of “Nymphomaniac” equally, albeit for very different reasons. Vol. I’s freeing and entertaining style is the perfect accompaniment to Vol. II’s much darker and abrasive turn of events, because they perfectly reflect Joe’s evolution as a character. The performances are all aces (Uma Thurman manages to stand out, alongside Stacy Martin‘s debut turn), the cinematography is lush, but most of all, I appreciate it for its dissection of the art of storytelling. No other film this year has had me so transfixed to a story while never letting me forget that I’m in one. Read my review of Vol. I here, and Vol. II here, for Way Too Indie. Read my capsule review of “Nymphomaniac” for The Playlist’s 20 Best Films of the Year.

1. “Leviathan” (dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev)

Zvyagintsev is on his way to the Russian halls of fame if he continues like this. The story of a man versus an all-powerful and corruptible state has touched me the most out of anything else, perhaps because I’m at a point in my adult life where I feel the responsibilities mounting and the importance of controlling one’s own identity that much clearer. Everything in Zvyagintsev’s masterpiece works in perfect unison, both behind and in front of the camera. He takes a risk by portraying the cruelty of a modern Russian system, and comes out with a masterclass in the art of the moving image; as thought-provoking and in-line with the various shades of fragile humanity as the greatest of Russian novels. Read my capsule on “Leviathan” for The Playlist’s 20 Best Films of the Year. Read my original thoughts from Cannes at Way Too Indie.

And 10 Honorable Mentions just because this year has been so fantastically rich.

10. “A Most Wanted Man” (dir. Anton Corbjin)
9. “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” (dir. Isao Takahata)
8. “Joe” (dir. David Gordon Green)
7. “White Bird In A Blizzard” (dir. Gregg Araki)
6. “Cheap Thrills” (dir. E.L. Katz)
5. “Miss Julie” (dir. Liv Ullmann)
4. “Two Days, One Night” (dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
3. “Borgman” (dir. Alex van Warmerdam)
2. “Metro Manila” (dir. Sean Ellis)
1. “Last Days in Vietnam” (dir. Rory Kennedy)

To browse all the rest of The Playlist’s Best of 2014 coverage, click here

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