In a year when The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game offer a most banal and repressive sort of historical biopic treatment for their respective subjects (and are being largely celebrated nonetheless), it becomes ever more important to draw lines in the cinematic sand to understand what we talk about when we talk about movies. Art historian Michael Fried once wrote of the burgeoning war between theater and modernist painting, and in many ways, contemporary filmmaking is rife with similarly antagonistic, fiery battles. As a culture, we can choose to celebrate the ideological claptraps of an egocentric, technically impressive whirligig (Birdman), the continued formal fury and narrative insouciance of one of the New Left’s original enfant terribles (Goodbye to Language), or a politically volatile, seductive reemergence of the city symphony film as techno-urban nightmare (Under the Skin). Our selections prove imperative and essential not just to discussions about the state of cinema, but the very fabric of quotidian life, where the sensibilities fortified in movie theaters (and on laptops) necessarily translate to the actions foisted upon citizens in homes, streets, and courtrooms.
After all, 2014 reveals that the examination room of a children’s hospital in Mexico City (The Naked Room) can prove just as towering a social document as looking behind the scenes of a world-renowned art museum (National Gallery). Speaking of art history, Mike Leigh offers a biopic of painter J.M.W. with self-reflexive grace (Mr. Turner), while Ming-liang Tsai has made one of the most covert examinations of the overlap between painterly and cinematic images in film history (Stray Dogs). These wholly severe examinations of public spaces being inextricable from private passions reveal a throbbing artistic determination from filmmakers old and new, but even the year’s seemingly softer art-house fare proved otherwise, such that outwardly satirical films yielded a savage deconstruction of white intellectual privilege (Listen Up Philip) and an incendiary screed challenging claims of a post-racial, cultural chill (Dear White People). To wade through the awards bait, assuaging sequelitis, and White Elephant blackholes is to rekindle a politically informed human spirit that continues to vitalize the essence of meaningful cinematic expression. Clayton Dillard
Editor’s Note: Click here for individual ballots and list of the films that came in 26–50.
Dear White People
Justin Simien’s bold-as-brass debut, Dear White People, is more of a call to conversation than a call to action. Set at a fictional Ivy League school that serves as a microcosm for “post-racial” America, it anarchically contrasts the personalities and ideologies of its African-American and white characters, revealing how these lives have been pigeonholed by the media over the years. The eclectic, self-aware ensemble gives the script’s thorniest propositions the sharply observed articulation they deserve, and is anchored by the fiercely determined Tessa Thompson as Samantha. She’s hoisted into a position of revolutionary power she craves, but nonetheless feels insecure within, and it’s this tortured sense of self that becomes the heart of Simien’s exploration of identity paradoxes, from how they’re constructed to how they’re dismantled. Around her, Simien, who clearly recognizes that one of the most subversive ways to provoke is through energized humor, throws poison-tipped darts at both historical and contemporary issues of racial tension, exposing the unwitting racism that most of us carry around with us. But as confrontational as the film’s comedy may be, it’s noticeably free of judgment. In the end, the triumph of Simien’s satire is how it reveals the filmmaker to be the canniest of equal-opportunity sympathizers. Nick McCarthy
A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
The “darkness” in the title of avant-garde filmmakers Ben Russell and Ben Rivers’s feature collaboration A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness turns out to be something more broadly existential than narrowly specific. The nameless central figure of the film (played by musician Robert A.A. Lowe) goes through the film trying on three different identities in three different milieus: living among hippies in an Estonian commune, by himself in the wilds of Finland, and finally making a go of it as a lead singer and guitarist for a black-metal band in Norway. Even after all the high-pitch head-banging music-making in the film’s last act, this lonely figure still walks off into a literal pitch-black void. In A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, however, whether or not this person ever discovers that sense of self he seeks matters less than the fact that he remains alive to continue that search. Such a search is the essence of humanity, and Russell and Rivers fashion from this eternal fact a triumphant work of distinctive, abstract, universal poetry. Kenji Fujishima
Chris Marker’s Level Five made for a particularly eerie cinematic experience by the fact that it was released 17 years after its making. The temporal gap gives it a cryogenic quality that only enhances the film’s prophetic aura. The melancholy that afflicts the director’s surrogate, Laura (Catherine Belkhodja), who addresses the camera as though she were Skyping her dead lover, is like a message in a bottle whose tragedy remained muffled for too long not to metastasize the very ocean through which it traveled. Here the essay film’s most basic element, the lyrical way in which it renders public the private machinations of thinking, imbricates itself with an intimate tale of grief ensconced by technology and the communal horror of the Battle of Okinawa, itself shielded by nothing. The timbre of Marker’s narration suggests an author too weathered by the human experience to be affected by his own poetry—a somberness akin to the blunt exposition of a deadly prognosis. Belkhodja’s face is perennially swollen, as if sucker-punched by sudden loss, and by the realization that loss is all there is. Marker weaves his cinematic thread by contaminating world events with a mourning as inaudible to the world as it is symbiotically connected to it. Diego Costa
Not since Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet have audiences been treated to a drama that delves into prison life with such psychological acuity and sociological precision. In David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, a rebellious youth, Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), lands behind bars and quickly sets out to defy every type of authority. He’s no stranger to the prison routine, and to watch him arm himself against the guards is like watching a soldier get ready for redeployment. And as Eric’s violent antics bring on the gore, we descend into the depths of his tortured id. Still more riveting than the fights, or Eric’s hell-bent trajectory, is the discovery that one of the most powerful thugs on the inside is in fact his father. Oppressive and repressed, Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn) tries to sabotage his son’s shaky first steps in group therapy. Tempers erupt, fueled by multiple prison rivalries and competing self-interests. Mackenzie keeps his storytelling flowing briskly, to the edge of breathlessness, but never skimps on situational nuance. O’Connell and Mendelsohn deliver superb, flinty performances, meting out love and odium in equal measure, and supported by a standout cast. Ela Bittencourt
Norte, the End of History
Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History unfolds over four hours, loosely transposing Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment into a Filipino context. It’s a headily philosophical drama that’s unmistakably, and remarkably, intimate at heart, tracking the lead-up to and fallouts of a murder through its three lead characters: Fabian (Sid Lucero), the perpetrator of the crime who’s never charged and becomes overcome by his guilty conscience; Joaquin (Archie Alemania), the poor villager who gets convicted and imprisoned in Fabian’s stead; and Joaquin’s wife, Eliza (Angeli Bayani), who’s left alone to look after her younger sister and two children. The result is a profound exploration of guilt, forgiveness, class, justice, and ethics, with Diaz’s patience in telling his characters’ stories and his empathy toward their plights assuring that these themes never become strictly conceptual. On the contrary, even as the film leaves space for scenes of lengthy moral discourse, Diaz keeps matters grounded in the lived experience of his characters, for whom choosing between right and wrong, good and evil, is no mere intellectual discussion. Tomas Hachard