With love for last year's cinema.
2015 has a lot to live up to. This past year delivered amazing films from fresh-voiced directors, a good number of them female for a change, and it also came through, unexpectedly, with a surprising spread of high quality empathetic and diverse LGBT cinema. But even if you're stuck in multiplex-only towns, the mainstream also delivered with sneaky overachieving surprises in genres as oft-lazy as superheroes, horror, animation, giant monsters, and crime thrillers. When it came time to draw up my lists I had 30 pictures I really wanted to celebrate. Thirty!
So let's briefly sum up (alphabetically) the films that just missed the top 20
The Boxtrolls - Laika's boldly grotesque superbly-voiced Victorian fable.
Godzilla - Smartly reimagined not as reboot but myth returned. The paratroopers. Gah!
Edge of Tomorrow - Emily Blunt's 'full metal bitch' isn't easy to forget. Neither is the film's gleeful rapid fire anarchy in treating Tom Cruise as South Park might. "You killed Tom Cruise!" Repeat ∞
Happy Christmas - No budget? No problem. Just write a warm funny script, film it in your home and hire famous actor friends. Joe Swanberg is living the Cassavettes dream only seems much happier about it.
The LEGO Movie - Excessively clever and fun. But in truth I'd rather it win a Clio than an Oscar.
A Most Violent Year - a slow simmer but Jessica Chastain is at full boil
Nightcrawler - Jake & Rene's bring out each other's best but their character's worst in this amoral nightmare. Great dialogue but man do those laughs curdle.
Two Days One Night - Belgium's Oscar submission is simple in narrative if not in complexity of feeling but Marion Cotillard is impossibly good / real / Oscar worthy
The Way He Looks - In a simply fantastic year for queer cinema (thank god - it's been a while) this was the sweetest offering, a coming of age pic about a blind teenager and his two best friends
Wild Tales - A raucously entertaining Argentinian anthology produced by Pedro Almodóvar and directed with skill and wicked invention by Damian Szifron. If you can, see it with a group of friends (comedies are always best that way). I'm already sad I didn't include it in the top 20!
So here we are. Twenty may feel like an indulgent number to settle on for this 2014 countdown party but it comes down to this. No matter how many times I adjusted my "tippity top" movies list I couldn't live without these twenty. They were the ones that refused to budge, that defined the year for me, that demanded top ten placement, refuting the laws of math. To sum up: This cinephile had a great year in the dark. If you were positive I loved it and you don't see it in the top 20, it's tied for 21st!
The film year is not drawing to a close just yet -- we keep celebrating through Oscar night. But the calendar year is a wrap so here is part one of my favorites roundup starting with a Tilda Swinton double feature...
The Weinstein Co. July 11th
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Sony Pictures Classics. April 11th
One barrels forward continually with violent energy and choreographed invention only pausing for allegorical sermons and strategizing because it has to. The other lies languidly still with calming sensuality and gestural grace only exerting itself for short punctuations of energy when it's cajoled into doing so. What unites them? inimitable directors, absorbing and weirdly beautiful visualizations of rotting worlds. And yes, I didn't forget her: They both feature the ever fascinating Tilda Swinton who delivered three wildly different performances in three excellent stylized films (all of which are on this list) adding three more indelible women to her increasingly miraculous gallery of characters. What did we ever do to deserve her?
WE ARE THE BEST!
Magnolia Pictures. May 30th
Despite the occassional nihilistic despair of a Lilja 4ever or Hole in My Heart Lukas Moodyson is one of the world's most empathetic directors - remember his great commune comedy Together? -- especially when he looks at the lives of adolescents as in his debut Show Me Love about two teenage girls falling for each other. This wholly unrelated new film is about three similarly-aged punk-rock loving girls in the 1980s on the brink of boy-craziness, who decide to form a band on a whim. It's effortlessly funny, generous to all its characters, and surprisingly dense with ideas about politics, music, friendship, and teenage rebellion from the safety of the nest.
20th Century Fox. October 3rd
If you're looking for the definitive movie of 2014 it might well be this zeitgeisty adult hit based on the Gillian Flynn page-turning bestseller. This overstuffed adaptation-contraption moves in three concentric circles of crime thriller, media satire, and marital comedy. It's so entertaining that even seemingly tossed off bits like the orange tabby cameos and the workday banter between two cops "my wife says he did it" / "well, if Tiffany says" or, hell, even the occasional off-notes in execution end up feeling like little pop satellites spinning madly in its orbit.
Cinema Tropical. November 19th
One of the best movies I've ever seen on the young LGBT experience, Venezuela's runner up for Oscar submission centers on a nine-year old bi-racial boy in the projects who hates his curly hair and wants it straightened for his school photo. His exhausted struggling mother is continually unnerved by his mannerisms and obsessions. This is a rich multi-faceted experience for anyone interested in identity politics (racial, sexual orientation, gender) and a must see for LGBT types who chafe at the simplicity of the "it gets better" slogan, even while tearing up at the videos (hypothetically *ahem*). Bad Hair is never didactic or heavy-handed, just brilliantly observational. Time to seek out Rondón's previous films.
STRANGER BY THE LAKE
Strand Releasing. January 24th
One gets so accustomed to cameras and editing editorializing that it's a little jarring to be asked that you do that for yourself. Guiraudie's camera is an objective character, observing sex, violence, and mundane routines with the same calm detachment. It's amoral certainly, and maybe curious (though it won't even move in for a close-up when it sees a murder in progress) but the recurring sight that haunts is the most mundane: a clearing where each car returns day in day out to its same phantom reserved spot. Stranger by the Lake is like a less verbal "No Exit" only gay, outdoors and clothing optional. One of the strangest, sexiest, creepiest, and most challenging films of the year.
Weinstein Co. July 11th
Every time I think I have a favorite moment in Begin Again another scene starts up and it's 'no, no. This one. This is the best!' Currently I'm fixated on Keira's luminous presence (her most relaxed performance ever) and that impromptu deceptively beautiful "Like a Fool" song wherein self pity recalibrates itself until its a blame-shaming grenade for your voice mail. No wait, my favorite is that joyous scene when James Corden challenges everyone not to dance but delightfully urges them to fail. Or -- SEE WHAT I MEAN? In some ways Begin Again is more favorite LP than film and as such there are scenes I'll surely skip in the future. But rewatchability factor is high so what of it? This endearing movie harnesses the pop power of being embarassingly sincere and/or authentically fake. Like many of the best movies and songs come to think of it.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Fox Searchlight. March 28th
"Boy With Apple," the priceless painting at the eventual center of this madcap curiousity's super elaborate plot, is the second best film prop of the year (this tops the props list). I like to think that the well-off perpetually youthful aesthete Wes Anderson is its secret subject, like rumors of the Mona Lisa as Leonardo da Vinci in drag. Or maybe Wes is Mendl, and the movie are his intricate pastries? The point is: He's in every frame. Grand Budapest Hotel's self-aware out-of-time preciousness can best be summed up in its own words:
You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that's ... Oh, fuck it."
Magnolia Pictures. October 24th
I've heard Sweden's Oscar submission described as "crystalline" and the word fits in all its complimentary implications. Ostlund's very smart deconstruction or, rather, dismantling of male ego is a must-see. Sometimes as talky riveting as a great play (it'd work just as well on stage) but with beautifully precise and chilly visuals. On repeat viewings its perhaps a little too pleased with itself given its concerns about ego and I'm not sure that long risky mini-chapter at the end works at all. But, all the same, it's deliciously funny and provocative with mini personal implosions going off as regularly as the resort's distant controlled avalanches. Boom. Boom. Boom.
Fox Searchlight. December 5th
Jean Marc-Vallée and his team make their best film yet, an inchoate journey of the soul, one step planted on earth at a time. It's filled with tender feeling for lost souls, gratitude for warm guides (maternal and otherwise), welcome humor, beautiful cinematography, and two very fine actresses mingling in memory. By its own meditative peaceful finale I was ineffably moved by it.
- Nathaniel R... and Cheryl Strayed.