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Jessica Kiang’s Top 20 Films Of 2014

Jessica Kiang's 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. Here’s the rest of our substantial year-end coverage, among which you’ll find other personal Best of the Year lists from our staff. 

It’s seven minutes to eight on New Year’s Eve and I’m in an airport waiting for my flight to board. There truly could not be a more ideal time to start writing my 2014 Top Twenty.

As late as I’ve left it, it’s not late enough for me to have gained any sort of distance or perspective on the year, to be honest. So while I’ve been rock solid on probably my top 4-5 for a while, all after that is a little less certain (hence the unpardonable liberty of this list running to 20 entries). And if choosing just 20 of the hundreds of films I saw this year is hard, ranking them is borderline heartbreaking, so please take the numbers beside the titles with a pinch of salt while remembering the essential apples v. oranges nature of the game.

As have several other of our listmakers, I’ve gone with my own year in film, as opposed to U.S. release dates. This is largely in order to differentiate this list from the Playlist Official Top 20, which I contributed to, collated and am pretty proud of, bar, among other niggles, the too-high placement of “Gone Girl” (my overrated pick for this year’s Overrated/Underrated feature). This means that I’m drawing from the pool of all the films I saw in 2014, and seeing as I was lucky enough to cover the Goteborg, Berlin, Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Venice and Tokyo film festivals this year, many of those titles may be 2015 releases in the States.

And conversely, there are a few potential contenders I haven’t been able to see yet, particularly Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” JC Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year,” Damian Chazelle’s “Whiplash” and Ava Du Vernay’s “Selma.” But even without those and several other big titles, 2014’s been good to me in many ways. Here are 20 of them:

20. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Guardians’ is fun but, beneath oddball clothing, very much a Marvel formula — I hope its success will allow James Gunn to push the sequel further into leftfield; “Interstellar” is grandiose old-fashioned filmmaking but, like a version of its famous docking sequence gone wrong, sometimes it just feels too massive and lumbering in its self-serious ambitions to really connect. So the only blockbuster to make it onto my list is this one, a sequel to a remake of a film series of which I was sacrilegiously never that much of a fan in the first place, by the guy who directed “Cloverfield.” No one’s more surprised than me. The sobriety of the tone (major props to director Matt Reeves there), the best-ever mo-cap work from Andy Serkis as Caesar and Toby Kebbell as Koba and the gentle arc of tragedy on which the story unfolds all absorbed me to the degree that even now I’m not embarrassed to count a film populated by chimps on horseback firing machine guns as one of the best of the year. (Read Rodrigo’s review here and check out its inclusion in our Best Action Sequences of the Year).

19. “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

It feels like it’s been a good year for directorial debuts/breakouts, at least according my (completely definitive and unimprovable) list, and no new talent was so immediately recognizable and so immediately welcome as Ana Lily Amirpour. Her funny, sad, tender, rock’n’roll vampire love story is a terrific first film, turning budgetary and resource constraints into positives with its pared-back cast, emphasis on mood over action and gorgeously controlled black and white photography. Responsible, along with Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” (which I saw in 2013) for bringing a moribund genre back from the dead (unavoidable pun, sorry) I was totally beguiled by this lovely melancholic yet arch little film and I can’t wait to see what she does next. (Our original review is here, and it also features in our Best Soundtracks of the Year, Best Music Moments and Breakout Directors lists).

18. “A Hard Day

Still probably the straight-up best time I had at the movies this year, this hilarious, inventive, completely over the top Korean action-comedy-thriller from Kim Seong-hoon was like a tonic during Cannes — a breezy, irreverent, giddy blast of the kind of pure fun that only the best, and most unapologetic genre filmmaking can deliver. The gonzo tale of a crooked cop getting in ever hotter water as he can only solve one pickle by getting himself into another, it is sheer kinetic joy that you could call Tarantino-esque, if Tarantino had done anything half so lively in the last decade. There’s nothing deep here so its sustain is not in the brain but in the lasting grin it’ll put on your face and the Red Bull-esque buzz in your blood. (My delighted Cannes review here).

17. “Girlhood

Celine Sciamma’s latest film had me at hello, which for “Girlhood” is near-mystical shot of a nighttime football match in slow motion, set to a thrumming rock track, which perfectly subverts expectations when the helmets and pads come off and all the participants are revealed to be female. From this lyrical, cool-as-fuck opening, the film that unfolds is part social commentary, part coming of age/quest for identity tale as its remarkable lead, played by breakout newcomer Karidja Toure, negotiates the harsh realities of girl gangs, familial violence and crime, growing up in an underprivileged Parisian suburb. It’s provocative and occasionally heartbreaking stuff, but peppered with moments like the scene set to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” (a definite inclusion for next year’s Best Music Moments, mark my words) it’s the opposite of turgid, feeling light on its feet and beautifully capturing the transience and the loveliness of youth, even when it’s hard. (Cannes review here).

16. “The Look of Silence

Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to “The Act of Killing” (which was the best film I saw, or rather had the psychological hell kicked out of me by, last year) is a quieter, less bristly, less stomach-churning affair, this time exploring the Indonesian genocide with more of a focus on its victims than its perpetrators. And yet just as in ‘Act,’ where he found in Anwar Congo a most unusual villain, Oppenheimer builds ‘Look’ around a most unusual hero. Adi is a man whose family was irrevocably and tragically scarred by the cruelty and violence of the “purges” but who seeks now to confront his brother’s killers armed only with a wellspring of quiet dignity and gentle humanity such as we can scarcely comprehend. The film may not burn quite as hot as ‘Act,’ and it cannot have the earlier film’s shock of the new, but it burns steadily and the devastation it leaves is just as profound. Oppenheimer’s native ability to find grace in the unlikeliest of places is confirmed. (My review from Venice).

15. “Enemy

I’ve always had a soft spot for Jake Gyllenhaal, and for me, he’s at his considerable best in roles that allow his native weirdness to shine (or perhaps more accurately, to pulse with a sinister glow). And while Dan Gilroy’s terrific “Nightcrawler” (The Playlist’s combined no 2. film of the year) does that brilliantly, I’m going to single out his less externalized, less sleazy but maybe even more unsettling performance in Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy.” Drawn in the clean, sterile Canadian lines of modern apartments, offices and city plazas, there’s a lovely chilling emptiness to “Enemy” — its madness is rendered in a kind of minimalism that makes it that much more effective. A tale of decaying self-identity, envy, covetousness and a kind of mid-life boredom with one’s station in life, the central trick of ‘Enemy’ (Gyllenhaal’s character realizes he has an exact double and engineers a meeting) is brilliantly underplayed by the actor who, under Villeneuve’s steady hand, differentiates the two characters just enough to let us follow while preserving the central enigma. (Here’s Rodrigo’s TIFF review and here’s the spoilerific write-up on its penultimate shot for Best Shots of the Year).

14. “Nymphomaniac

Man, this is a pain in the arse to rank: ‘Vol 1’ by itself would be much higher, being one of the most brilliantly shot, mischievous, provocative but oddly wise films I saw all year. And so would ‘Vol 2’ until a final couple of minutes that made me so goddamn mad that I was tempted not to include the film at all (and yes, I understand that that reaction is probably exactly what Lars Von Trier would claim to want which obviously only makes me madder). Truth is, for five hours and twenty-three minutes of its five hour twenty-five minute total uncut runtime I was swooning with delight, even its dourer, nastier second half was continually buoyed up by Von Trier’s undeniable filmmaking brio. And then came that last two minutes in which the worst naughty-schoolboyish tendencies of the director played out in the most spectacularly self-defeating way. Not only does he trash every moment of characterization and storytelling to that point, he makes you feel like an idiot for ever having invested in it in the first place as if he’d added the postscript “jk lol ur so dum!” Anyway, I’m choosing to take the high ground on it all, because the vast majority of it is one of the best films I saw all year, and I’m going to mentally edit it so it ends when Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) leaves the room and Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) goes to sleep, which feels truthful and earned. Take that, Lars! (My ‘Vol 1’ review from Berlin is here, here’s its capsule in our collective Best Films of the Year and here’s an analysis of its single best shot in Shots of the Year).

13. “Two Days, One Night

We’re unlikely to ever see the Belgian Dardenne brothers tackling a ticking-clock thriller but absent that, “Two Days, One Night” must surely be the next best thing. A totally gripping account of one woman’s attempts to convince her co-workers to turn down their bonuses so that she can retain her job, it’s centered around a remarkable Marion Cotillard performance (you have to be extraordinary to play ordinary this well) and takes place over a single, increasingly desperate weekend. There are a couple of moments perhaps that don’t ring as wholly true as the rest, but nothing that can detract from such a wholly earned and satisfying ending. The Dardennes may be getting on a bit, but they’re if anything increasing in their powers, and becoming even more compassionate for their marginalized protagonists, even more furious at the social injustices they face, and even more admiring of their ability to overcome them with grace. (Swoony Cannes review here and Cotillard’s performance got a segment in Best Performances of the Year).

12. “Virunga

One of the most dramatic, layered and complex narratives I experienced this year was not in a narrative film, but in this immense, intelligent documentary set in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ostensibly using the park’s endangered mountain gorilla population as a way in, director Orlando Von Einseidel spins his story in ever widening circles, taking in the rangers who look after the animals (and in 140 cases have actually laid down their lives for them), the poachers that threaten them; the wars ongoing and historical that scar the region; the international oil corporation fracking in the area; and the local officials they bribe and coerce into co-operation. So much more than an “eco doc” this is a grand portrait of corruption and strife in one of the most beautiful and precious habitats on earth, an ongoing tale of actual good versus actual evil being that is still being played out, day in day out, as we speak. As an encapsulation of the entrenched problems that afflict many parts of Africa and the legacy of culpability that stretches beyond that continent, it is instructive, educational, heartbreaking not a little enraging. (Read Rodrigo’s review for our mid-year Best Documentaries piece and my own for the 22 Best Documentaries of 2014 feature).

11. “The Postman’s White Nights

Best Director winner in Venice, Andrei Konchalovsky’s film is a curious melding of social realist, semi-documentary filmmaking with surreal and almost sci-fi-ish elements that, even in a year full of enigmatic, not-quite-explicable films, defies categorization to the degree that I’m still not sure my reading of it was even remotely the same as anyone else’s. Set in an extraordinarily isolated, scattered rural community on the fringes of a lake in the Archangelsk region of Russia, the film follows, with occasionally almost enervating attention to quotidien detail, the local postman (Aleksei Tryapitsin) who is for many in the region the sole point of contact with the outside world. But this is a world in which magic and space rockets and dreams about cats also thread their way in and out, just ever so slightly fraying the edges of reality so that we’re not totally sure that we’re not on a whole other planet. (My woozy review from Venice is here).

10. “A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence

Roy Andersson’s latest almost deserves a whole separate category as it is, after all a collection of three dozen scenarios, each of which could stand up on its own merits as a short film. But part of the singular pleasure of Andersson’s approach is also how he puts the scenes together — occasionally it feels haphazard, but then you start to notice rhythms and repetitions, little crescendoes and diminuendos in the film’s tidal pull. Mostly though, you’re too busy trying to catch all the little details that Andersson packs into every locked-off frame, from the pitch-perfect deadpan performances (here featuring two characters who recur at irregular intervals) to the tiny, absurd embellishments of framing, set design and costuming, all delivered in that heightened, hyper-real totally idiosyncratic, and mordantly hilarious style. There’s a lovely sense, when watching ‘Pigeon’ for the first time, that you’re watching it for the first time — there will be many others. (Dazzled Venice review here).

9. “Starred Up

I haven’t yet seen “Unbroken,” but Jack O’Connell has been my breakout of the year since the amazing one-two of “‘71” (see below) and this striking prison drama, both of which I saw early on in the year and neither of which has left me since. David Mackenzie’s film of Jonathan Asser’s firsthand-inspired screenplay, “Starred Up” flexes like a tensed muscle, all sinew and blunt brawn and misdirected fury, but as well as the visceral impact of its performances (McConnell is the dazzling revelation who threatens to blind the viewer to the impressive achievements of Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend) there’s a real authenticity to the arcane inmate rituals and even their argot that breathes new insight into the prison drama genre. (Bruised Goteborg review is here and here’s my interview with David Mackenzie along with his write-up in our Breakout Directors of the Year).

8. “The Overnighters

Our number one Best Documentary of the Year, Jesse Moss’ “The Overnighters” is a brilliant example of a clever, provocative bait-and-switch. It may start out as a social issues documentary taking timely aim at the kind of recession economics that force masses of people to migrate and descend on an unprepared small town in the hopes of employment in the booming oil fields nearby, but it gradually transforms into a powerful character study, and a portrait of one man’s struggle with faith, hope and charity. It’s a Steinbeckian Great American Novel for our times, both sprawling and immense in its comment on modern America, and tiny and intimate in locating all the good and evil powers of the universe in this one small community, and ultimately in Pastor Reinke — a deeply complicated man trying with all his might to simply do the right thing, in a situation in which it’s almost impossible to know what the right thing is. (Here’s Katie’s Sundance review and here’s me writing about it for Best Docs of the Year).

7. “‘71

The second Jack O’Connell film here and the one that confirmed he is not just a flash in the pan, Yann Demange’s “‘71” is a very different beast from “Starred Up,” perhaps less reliant on strong performance than directorial flair, but it has both in abundance. A brilliantly shot and scored impressionist parable in which one squaddie’s night lost and alone in Belfast at the height of the troubles is rendered as a Dantean trip through several circles of hell, the film is a terrific tour de force of symphonic filmmaking in which sound, picture and story blend into a thrilling, symbiotic whole (also marked by extremely skillful editing). Less political than humanist, despite the specificity of its period and location, it has a kind of loss-of-innocence theme that can be applied to any conflict anywhere and shows O’Connell is not just a good actor, but a magnetic one to watch even when he’s less driver of the action than its hunted moving target. (My dazed Berlin review here).

6. “Birdman

No, it doesn’t have a particularly long sustain, nor does it provoke too many Deep and Meaningful conversations (though nor is it empty-headed, as its some have claimed); “Birdman” is simply an exhilarating, giddy, headrush experience, like a waterslide for cinephiles. The film’s showy one-long-take approach would be a gimmick if its gathering kinetic momentum didn’t also happen to be the point of the story, and if it didn’t happen to be taking in such bristling, manic, high-energy performances from a series of actors better known for their consummate underplaying (Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts etc etc) than the off-the-leash OTT fun they get to have here. Its pleasures are more spectacular than cerebral, its effect more visceral than emotive, but God, it’s a blast and one that had me eating my words about Alejandro G. Inarritu, a filmmaker I found so offputtingly self-serious beforehand. Also, to those critics who felt somehow personally piqued by the characterization of Lindsay Duncan’s acid-tongued theatre critic: really? Get over yourselves. (Breathless Venice review.)

5. “Mommy

Perhaps the top 10 title (along with “Birdman”) that most puts the lie on my characterization of 2014 as the Year of Sombre Jess, Xavier Dolan’s gloriously life-filled melodrama, “Mommy” is at the other end of the scale — a ballsy, effusive, hormonally messy but totally magical movie. Boasting the single greatest moment I had in a cinema all year when that *SPOILER* ridiculously show-offy but totally effective aspect ratio change first happens *SPOILER ENDS*, the film feels like the product of a hyperactive imagination gone off its meds (specifically Ritalin, Hormone Replacement Therapy and Valium) and vividly experiencing manic upswings and precipitous tumbles in mood, as though the shutters have been suddenly thrown open to allow all the pain and ecstasy of being alive to flood in. With Antoine Olivier Pilon and Anne Dorval giving two of the most ferociously committed performances of the year as the unstable son and his passionate mother, it’s about as subtle as an anvil dropped from a great height, and it has much the same effect on the emotions by its end. (Lovestruck Cannes review; Pilon in Breakout Performances of the Year; Dorval in Best Performances of the Year)

4. “Foxcatcher

Bennett Miller’s retelling of the true story of John DuPont and his sinister, ultimately tragic relationship with Olympic wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schultz even now sets my brain whirring when I think about it. It’s a film that undoubtedly lives more in the mind than in any other vital organ, but its cool, anti-sensationalist precision is exactly what makes it so powerful to me, along with its masterfully clinical, chilling atmosphere and trio of impeccable central performances from Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. It’s a film about the tragedy have having more ambition than talent and an expose of the corrupting effect that the myth of American exceptionalism can have on the weaker minded, and it’s completely bloody terrifying, the more so for appearing so defiantly level-headed and observational. (Here’s my Cannes review, a few words about its ensemble in Best Performances of the Year and here’s a piece about Bennett Miller which is among my favorite things I’ve ever written for The Playlist).

3. “Leviathan

As Oli pointed out in his Top 15, both of us being in Cannes meant we were sometimes vying gently for who got to review what. I won the toss with “Foxcatcher,” but Oli did the honors on “Leviathan” the other magnificent slow-burn intimate epic that defined this year’s competition for me (“Winter Sleep,” with great apologies to Nik who loved it, didn’t even remotely come close). Andrei Zvyaginstev’s resonant portrait of political corruption and the price of personal integrity is simply one of the best examples of complete directorial control I saw all year from the macro — the grand arc of the story — to the micro, like how every choice as to what to include or exclude from each frame feels deliberate and considered. But there’s an urgency here too in its brave and unmistakable social critique, a clarion call to look below the still surface of civilized society to the massive evil that may be stirring beneath. (Oli’s excellent Cannes review is here, and here’s the write up from our collective Best Films of the Year).

2. “The Tribe

Speechless they are and speechless you’ll be — my favorite film from Cannes 2014 also happens to be the one with the most offputting and borderline arthouse-parodic logline: a Ukrainian drama set in a school for the deaf that is told entirely through sign-language. But it’s incredible, with its lack of polish in terms of performance and filmmaking (it is, remarkably enough, the debut from director Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy) only adding to its feel of rough-diamond brilliance. Without a single intelligible word uttered, somehow in its lack of spoken language the film becomes entirely about language and communication, or perhaps more accurately it shows by counterpoint how we use language to cover up our true intentions and characters. It’s a mask behind which these young people, all played by deaf actors, cannot hide and yet the film is as much a “Lord of the Flies”-esque indictment of closed societies and the cruelty that children can visit on each other as it is an exploration of disability, if it’s that at all. Boasting some truly haunting moments (a harrowing abortion scene, an accidental death and the many scenes of violence and bullying are made all the more visceral for being enacted without words) and an absolute mastery of dread-filled atmosphere, “The Tribe” is an utterly singular film whose gut-punch effectiveness, within the strict formalist parameters it sets itself, is borderline miraculous. (My astonished review from Cannes is here).

1. “Under the Skin

Most films, even great ones, take a while to work what magic they have, but Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinarily beautiful and achingly uncanny “Under the Skin” hit a vein for me with its first shot and from them on delivered its story more or less intravenously. From its Kubrickian beginning (surely this is the film, and not “Interstellar,” that most warrants ‘2001’ comparisons) it consumed me completely, as though I were one of those willing victims, docilely allowing myself to be completely subsumed by an entity I could never come close to understanding. It is simply one of the most alien films I’ve ever watched, yet not for me alienating, instead it’s a fascinating evocation of how a non-human intelligence, whose only recognizable motivation is the survival instinct, might behave in the humdrum world of humans (here brilliantly represented by on-the-fly footage and street cast Scottish actors) and how that very ordinariness might subtly start to have a corrupting, “humanizing” effect on it. Featuring a Scarlett Johansson performance that confirms her as one of my favorite working actresses (a statement I’d likely have laughed out of the room a couple of years ago) I’ve enjoyed many films this year, and I’ve been absorbed and impressed by a few, but “Under the Skin” just ate me alive until I was nothing but eyes and ears and a tingling sense of dread and profound wonder. As it is here for me personally, it was number one on the Playlist Collective’s Top 20 films of the Year by an enormous margin, a fact that makes me very proud of this motley bunch, and reminds me all over again why I call this blog home. (Oli’s take from last year is here, my write-up on the film for the Playlist 2014 Top 20 is here, my analysis of its most evocative shot is here for Best Shots of the Year, and it also features in Best Scores, Best Performances, Best Posters, Best Trailers and just about every other Best of 2014 list we ran).


2014 also featured some terrific TV, much of which we talked about in our Best TV Shows of the 2013/2014 season feature back in July. Of the shows that have debuted since then, or that I’ve only just caught up with, Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick” is consistently brilliant, delivering weekly slices of a seemingly energized Soderbergh firing on all cylinders. Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” season 1 is dangerously close to TV perfection: funny, observant, brilliantly performed and wholly relatable the more it mines the very specific characters and situations of the Pfefferman family. And I finally caught up with “Rectify” whose two seasons I devoured in a few sittings and about which I can, late to the party, confirm all the good reports and then some: it’s a beautifully well-made show and the kind of slow burn character/mood piece that is so tricky to maintain in episodic TV format. And in the miniseries category I was lucky enough to get to see “Olive Kitteridge” in one sitting on the big screen in Venice, and absolutely loved it.

Honorable Mentions

Outside this already too-long list, there were a load of films I adored that didn’t quite make the cut on New Year’s Eve, but now that it’s New Year’s Day I feel bad about leaving off (this is a very inexact and arbitrary science, as I’ve said). They include the wonderfully oily, sleazy “Nightcrawler” from Dan Gilroy; Pawel Pawlikowski’s lovely, fragile “Ida”; surprising genre bender “Hungry Hearts”; shimmery, sensory “Blind” by Eskil Vogt; the similarly shimmery as-yet-undistributed “Violent” from director Andrew Hulme; offbeat, minute “The Strange Little Cat” (one of the 17 Best 2014 Films You Didn’t See), Tokyo winner “Heaven Knows What”; Cannes favorites “Force Majeure,” “White God” and “Timbuktu”; and three less-seen festival titles “Class Enemy,” “In Order of Disappearance” and “The Lesson.” And Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man” was my pick for Underrated Film of the Year, so safe to say I pretty much love it too.

In the documentary arena meanwhile, my personal additional picks (many of which feature in our Best Docs of the Year feature) include the intriguing story of an undiscovered eccentric genius “Finding Vivian Maier”; moving war doc “The Last Days of Vietnam”; witty and enlightening documentary about the Large Hadron Collider “Particle Fever”; the infectiously fun and mischievous tribute to “Jodorowsky’s Dune”; and Debra Granik’s stunning, quiet, human “Stray Dog.

I could go on forever, so I won’t. Happy New Year everybody — if we get a 2015 as strong in film as 2014 was, we’ll be a lucky bunch indeed. And as ever, thank you all for reading, especially those of you who peruse and say nice things about our hundreds of features each year (I’m allowed to plug, it’s my job).

You guys make all the typing worthwhile.

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