Assembling a list of the year’s best movies is always a curatorial adventure, but the game has its limits. In most cases, critics tend to adhere one rule above all — that the movies under consideration actually got released. Of course, numerous titles from the festival calendar may wind up with on the release calendar for the following year, when they may in fact get a shot at making the cut. But ever year, come December, a few gems aren’t so lucky. It’s a cluttered world out there, and even the most adventurous U.S. distributors have to make tough decisions involving nature of their business: Frankly, it’s hard to get people to see any kind of movie, much less a truly original, challenging work of art. But then again, where’s the fun in easy work? A daringly conceived form of near-experimental storytelling called “Boyhood” became the biggest indie success of the year. So anything’s possible.
Memo to distributors: These movies still need an American home. Who’s up for a healthy risk?
10. “The Keeping Room”
Daniel Barber’s South Carolina-set period drama finds a trio of women fighting for their lives at the close of the Civil War, when a group of deranged Yankee scouts discover them on a desolate farm. Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld play sisters who join forces with their slave (Muna Otaru) to fend for their own while the men of the household vanish on the battlefield. Trapped in a cabin when two dangerous Yankee scouts (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) show up and try to take advantage of them, the trio face their threat in a bloody showdown worthy of Peckinpah — with more progressive sexual politics.
Based on Julia Hart’s Blacklist screenplay, “The Keeping Room” is a quiet, slow-burn story with major payoff in its climax. A feminist western with bite, the movie delivers a compelling portrait of resistance. Its events may unfold in the past, but the struggles speak to the present with the same canny focus. If anything can reignite interest in the western, “The Keeping Room” has the best shot.
9. “Bro’s Before Ho’s”
A Dutch comedy about arrested development spiked with politically incorrect humor more extreme than anything found in the Judd Apatow oeuvre, “Bro’s Before Ho’s” follows the story of brothers Max (Tim Haars) and Jules (Daniel Arends), who vow at a young age never to let women pull them apart. Flash forward to their bored, hard-partying twenties, when the arrival of the sweet-natured Anna (Sylvia Hoecks) challenges their bond after they both fall for her. Despite the familiar premise, the movie gets a naughty kick from its lazy protagonist’s vulgar exchanges, as well as a subplot involving Anna’s mentally challenged brother and his friends.
But even as “Bro’s Before Ho’s” derives its humor from certain crass ingredients, there’s an underlying sweetness to the scenario that holds it together. The movie crosses certain lines with glee — explicit genitalia humor and a climactic pageant involving its mentally challenged characters stand out — to the point where it’s unlikely any major U.S. distributor would take a chance on it, but that only enhances the liberating qualities of its raunchiness.
8. “History of Fear”
Buenos Aires is a haven for paranoia and confusion in Argentinian writer-director Benjamin Naishtat’s mesmerizing debut “History of Fear,” though its title is something of a misnomer. Rather than chronicling the timeline of the listless quality that characterizes Argentina’s suburban class — and, by extension, those around the world — “History of Fear” hypnotically sets its gaze on the present. Borrowing the beats of a disaster movie without ever giving the invisible threat a name, Naishtat explores the tenuous constructs that allow a subset of the population to deny the harsher ingredients of the world beyond their safety zone — until it’s thrust right in front of them.
Naishtat and cinematographer Soledad Rodriguez mostly focus on closed spaces and the manias resulting from them (with ample nods to Michael Haneke), particularly with regard to the gated community where the story unfolds: A police officer is suddenly assaulted by mud flung at his car from an unseen assailant; a teen and his mother encounter a naked man attempted to infiltrate their vehicle; at a fast food restaurant, a young patron suddenly gets down on all fours and behaves like a rabid animal. Elevators jam and the power goes out. What gives? “History of Fear” does a better job asking that question than answering it, but the interrogation provides a continual source of fascination. Each ominous event deepens the atmospheric dread as it registers on various characters’ faces, the palpable sense of unease steadily coalescing into this experimental narrative’s provocative raison d’etre.
7. “High Five”
The outrageous Uruguayan stoner comedy “High Five” might be best described in these parts as a slick blend of “Pineapple Express” and “Requiem for a Dream.” Director Manuel Facal’s expertly-made romp involves a quintet of young people — three college-age losers and a pair of teens — discovering a package in the park filled with multiple drugs and divvying them up.
During the ensuing hectic day, one thing after another goes hilariously wrong: Good-natured Elias (Joaquin Tome), lost in the fog of an LSD trip, frantically tries to get back to his girlfriend, while his portly buddy Andres (Santiago Quintans) evades the gun-wielding gangsters who owned the dope. The young lady among them takes ketamine and promptly falls into a drug-induced coma, which the terrified men cover up by putting sunglasses on the unconscious woman and hauling her around town, an effective nod at ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ — though the rest of the movie is closer in form to “Cheech & Chong,” with better production values. Elias’ acid-induced visions, including one terrifying journey to the grocery store, stand out as particularly effective at conveying the character’s horrified state while making it possible to laugh at its absurdity.
6. “For the Plasma”
You’re unlikely to see a more peculiar debut than co-directors Bingham Bryan and Kyle Molzan’s sneakily cryptic “For the Plasma,” the only world premiere at BAMcinemaFest this year. Set in a solitary lakeside cabin in Maine and its surrounding forests, this strange, muted science fiction story suggests Jacques Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating” by way of David Lynch. The story finds a pair of old friends (Anabelle LeMieux and Rosalie Lowe, both excellent and subdued) working together to monitor CCTV of various isolated regions of the forest, a meditational practice that one of them figures out how to use to predict the stock market. Meanwhile, there are inexplicable power outages possibly attributed to ghosts, meandering camping trips to monitor the footage up close, and bizarre encounters with a creepy older neighbor who delivers his lines in eerie deadpan. The dialogue features abrupt references to Proust and other existential musings that emphasize the movie’s otherworldly quality, but it never loses the overarching serenity of its environment. Sort through the pieces or just glide through its dreamlike state: “For the Plasma” offers many pleasures, but no single interpretation, and that open-ended state is a liberating alternative to anything else in recent American cinema.
5. “Songs From the North”
Soon-mi Yoo’s delicately assembled diary film is a moving paean to Korean identity through the filter of its darker ingredients. Taking cues from the tradition of diary films pioneered by Chris Marker and his ilk, “Songs From the North” finds the South Korean-born Yoo (who lives in the U.S.) crafting a meditation on North Korean society with a mixture of archival materials and footage shot in the country over the course of four years and three visits. Handling editing and camera duties, Yoo recontextualizes the cold nature of North Korea’s government-mandated image by getting intimate with its ramifications.
At a time when North Korean society is a regular target of popular culture — the Seth Rogen/James Franco studio comedy “The Interview” comes out soon, after all — “Songs From the North” offers a unique window into the country’s temperament, and dares to view it in sympathetic terms.
4. “August Winds” (“Ventos de Agosto”)
There is something of a plot in “Ventos de Agosto” (“August Winds”), the lyrical narrative debut from Brazilian documentarian Gabriel Mascaro, but its main appeal comes from a succession of quietly revealing moments: Shirley (Dandara de Morais), a young woman who lives with her ailing grandmother by the sea, lies on her back on a rickety boat under the bright sun and covers her body by using Coca-Cola as sunscreen; later, she rests on a rocky bed of coconuts with her boyfriend, coconut farmer Jeison (Geová Manoel Dos Santos), in an awkward post-coital embrace. Elsewhere, a researcher comes to town and sits motionless on the vacant beach recording the audio of the sea breeze and rushing water, absorbing the nuances of the natural world. It’s hard to blame him: ‘Ventos de Agosto’ presents such an extraordinary portrait of rural life that its textures often overwhelm the narrative.
But despite the low key story, “Ventos de Agosto” manages to convey a degree of solitude that gradually introduces deeper themes. When Jeison discovers a skull while diving in the reefs on the hunt for octopus, and later comes across an entire corpse, his recurring attempts to bring the body to the attention of authorities in the neighboring town go nowhere. Unable to provide an address for his home (‘the fourth turn’ is all he can muster), Jeison confronts the casual indifference of the larger world and his minuscule role in it. As a first feature, it’s a striking accomplishment that manages to use small, understated fragments to explore a bigger picture simultaneously in tune with its setting and timeless.
The anarchist notion of a “free school,” in which the children call the shots, emerged out of Spanish attempts in the nineteenth century; needless to say, the idea never gained much traction in the United States, but there have been plenty of attempts. Amando Rose Wilder’s alternately hilarious and horrifying black-and-white vérité portrait captures one such effort, by New Jersey’s Teddy McArdle Free School over the course of its comically unproductive first year. While the teachers encourage their gradeschoolers to call meetings and set their own rules, mainly they run wild, bicker and lose focus—as kids are apt to do.
As the teachers share rambling convictions about their efforts and the students make awkward attempts to echo their adults’ perspectives, “Approaching the Elephant” is at once a treatise on education and a cautionary tale about its fragility. Aptly compared to the work of master documentarian Frederick Wiseman as well as “Lord of the Flies,” Wilder’s movie is also a remarkable deadpan comedy about the travails of classroom dynamics taken to the extremes of a black comedy. (To that end, it’s the best of its kind since Laurent Cantet’s “The Class.”) Building toward a climax involving the potential expulsion of a wayward student, “Approaching the Elephant” should figure into national conversations about the state of the education system in America—merely by providing a reminder of why we have it in the first place.
2. “The Midnight After”
Hong Kong’s densely populated metropolitan society is the on the verge of sliding into chaos, or at least that’s the tantalizing possibility explored in wry allegorical terms by director Fruit Chan in his erratic but entertaining post-apocalyptic satire “The Midnight After.” The Chinese director’s first feature since 2009’s ghost story “Don’t Look Up” adopts a familiar scenario involving the aftermath of a mysterious event — leaving only a handful of survivors thrust together to sort things out — but fires off in innumerable tonal directions, resulting in a mesmerizing genre hybrid that renders modern China in deliriously cartoonish terms with a dark undertone.
We’ve seen a lot of movies about the end of days that put society under the microscope, but “The Midnight After” shows more interest in the behavior and personalities than with the cause of their conundrum. Fruit’s movie exists in the grander tradition of Luis Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,” where upper class socialites find themselves psychologically unable to leave the house party where the action takes place. In “The Midnight After,” it’s the ongoing sense of confusion that seems to doom the survivors rather than the forces that put them there.
1. “From What Is Before”
Considering that we live in the age of binge-viewing, the prospects of sitting through a five-and-a-half hour movie shouldn’t sound so radical. Of course, there are long movies and there are Lav Diaz movies, which apply their durations with such particular aesthetic finesse that one must embrace the challenge to access their unique appeal.
“From What Is Before,” the Phillipine director’s latest opus, runs considerably shorter than some of his other features — 2008’s “Melancholia,” for instance, approaches the eight hours — yet rarely does this unconventional form fit its content so well. “Norte, the End of History,” released earlier this year, expanded ‘Crime and Punishment’ to a four-hour epic that used its source material to explore a broader passage of time with compelling but mixed results. The new movie earns every minute.
Diaz’s starkly photographed black-and-white drama takes place in a remote village in the early 1970’s, exploring the final days of a tranquil religious community on the brink of collapse.
Climaxing with president Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law in 1972, “From What Is Before” steadily develops a quiet world defined by quaint traditions and the solitude of a barren coastal landscape. In its opening moments, a voice over declares that the ensuing events are “based on real life” but “came from memory,” and Diaz’s gradual accumulation of details justifies that declaration. In the first hour, a world comes to life, enhancing the tragedy when it falls apart.