Better Late Than Never: The Best Movies of 2014

So, it’s been a while. So long, in fact, that if you scroll down just a little, you’ll see that my previous post on this here site was my list of the best movies of 2013 (and that one wasn’t three weeks late, even). I could get into why I haven’t written anything in so long, starting with the fact that I’ve actually been writing a lot but focusing on the novel instead, to the point that the end of the first draft is actually in sight, but who cares, right? Still, at the end of the year I couldn’t help but make a top 10, and once you start doing that, you might as well write it up and publish it, so here we are. And since 2014 was such a strong year for movies (which you wouldn’t know if all you’re interested is serious Hollywood prestige pictures, the one area that kinda sucked, but again, who cares?), and since I haven’t written anything movie-related in a while, I figured I’d do things a little differently this time and give you a top 25, while writing a short thing about ten of those movies (only four of which are in my top 10). If all you’re interested in is the list, you can just scroll down to the bottom of this post. I won’t hold it against you.

The completely arbitrary selection criteria remain the same: in order to be eligible, a movie must have been released in France in 2014, unless it was released in the US in 2013 or earlier, in which case, well, that’s too bad. (Hey, that still makes more sense than the rules for Academy Awards nominations.) Among the films that came out in 2014 here but are excluded per the above rule, a few would have had a strong shot at making it into my best of the year list, namely, Spike Jonze’s Her, Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and Sébastien Betbeder’s 2 Autumns, 3 Winters (the last of which was actually a 2013 release that I didn’t get to see until last January). This also means that a number of films that have yet to be released in France won’t be included (duh). Among those, the two I’m most looking forward are Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (as both a P.T. Anderson and a Pynchon fan, how could I not?) and Ava DuVernay’s Selma.

And now, without further ado, a bunch of nonsense about some fine movies:

Best Live-Action Cartoon: Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Tsui Hark)

Young Detective Dee
A prequel to 2010’s Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (which makes its French title, Detective Dee 2, particularly baffling), Tsui Hark’s Young Detective Dee is about as pulpy as it gets. And as fun, too. Part-Indiana Jones, part-Scooby-Doo, it features everything from political machinations to supernatural curses, with such colorful characters as a Fu Manchu-like villain with one hell of a convoluted plan to take over China or a doctor with a gorilla paw for a hand and a disturbing love for dangerous experiments. Newcomer Mark Chao portrays the title character as one smug son of a bitch, which makes for a nice contrast with Andy Lau’s older, wiser Dee from the first movie. Although it relies a little too heavily on often-awkward CGI for its own good, Young Detective Dee provides a number of impressive, beautifully choreographed action set pieces (this is Tsui Hark we’re talking about, after all) and never takes itself so seriously that it’s above going for a silly slapstick gag or throwing in yet another shot of Chao smirking like an insufferable bastard.

Best Romantic Comedy: Love at First Fight (Thomas Cailley)

Love at First Fight

2014 was a surprisingly strong year for romantic comedies, a genre that has come to be dominated by mediocre run-of-the-mill (as well as terrible run-of-the-mill) offerings in recent years. Obvious Child dared to be awkward and honest, What If featured people who look and act (mostly) like normal people, and even Begin Again had its charms, even if it failed to recapture the magic of Once. The best of the bunch, though was Thomas Cailley’s Love at First Fight (Les Combattants in the original French), which gives us a most unlikely pair: Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), a young man barely out of his teens who seems destined to take over the family business (carpentry) with his brother, and Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), with her Master’s in macroeconomics and her deep-seated conviction that the world is about to come to an abrupt end. Haenel is hilariously deadpan as Madeleine (my favorite gag has her explaining that macroeconomics consists in looking at past patterns to predict the future, before adding “but there won’t be any future, so there’s no point”), but the film works because, like Arnaud, it’s willing to engage with her point of view all the way to the end. It’s also not afraid to take chances and experiment, both narratively and visually, or to end without tying everything together neatly.

Best Coen Brothers Knockoff: In Order of Disappearance (Hans Peter Molland)

In Order of Disappearance

Set in an isolated village cut off from the rest of the world by what looks like perpetual heavy snowfall, Hans Peter Molland’s In Order of Disappearance is Norway’s answer to the Coen brothers, by way of Quentin Tarantino. What begins as a straightforward revenge tale starring Stellan Skarsgård as a grieving father trying to understand why his son got killed soon turns into a violent and often hilarious black comedy as Skarsgård unwittingly becomes the cause of a turf war between two equally inept gangs. Writer Kim Fupz Aakeson has an ear for surreal dialogue (one of my favorite bits has a gangster explaining to another why all welfare states are cold countries like Norway), and Molland adds many arresting visual gags (the local kingpin’s house has to be seen to be believed). A lot of the fun of In Order of Disappearance comes from watching a bunch of idiots running around while the few competent characters try in vain to get things done, before it all culminates in a predictably bloody finale that’s not without its surprises.

Best Action Film: John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch)

John Wick

Directed by two veteran stunt coordinators/second-unit directors, John Wick is the rarest of beasts in American cinema, an action movie that features action scenes that are actually understandable and fun to watch. No shaky cam, no shots with an average length of half a second, no constant close-ups, just perfectly choreographed action. Seriously over-the-top action, too, which only makes the whole thing better. In fact, John Wick feels like a comic book movie, except it’s not based on any existing property. While the plot is paper thin (John Wick, played by a perfectly-cast Keanu Reeves, wants revenge from the thugs who killed the dog his dead wife gave him), the world the movie builds is rich and peopled with colorful and hilarious characters, from manic kingpin Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist, giving some of the best line readings of the year) to Wick’s friend and rival Marcus (Willem Dafoe). It’s the kind of film you wouldn’t mind turning into a franchise, as long as Stahelski and Leitch remain at the helm.

(Seriously, watch this clip, particularly the bit that starts at 0:30, and tell me it doesn’t look great.)

Runner-ups: Edge of Tomorrow, which is so fun and smart that an ending that feels like a cop-out isn’t enough to ruin it. Also, The Raid 2, which at its best is as intense as the first one, but gets bogged down in an overly-complicated plot in an unsuccessful attempt to be a martial arts-heavy version of Infernal Affairs.

Best Animated Film: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

If The Tale of the Princess Kaguya really is to be one of the last Studio Ghibli movies ever (When Marnie Was There will be coming out here in a couple weeks, although it doesn’t seem to have any scheduled release date outside of Japan and France), what a way to go out. Based on a traditional Japanese tale, it tells the story of a bamboo cutter who discovers a tiny girl inside a glowing bamboo shoot and takes her in, before moving to the city with his wife and their fast-growing adoptive daughter when another magical bamboo shoot provides them with a fortune in gold. Exquisitely drawn and animated, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a story about the struggle between the desire to find one’s place in the world and one’s duty that eventually comes back to its supernatural roots in a most surprising and heartbreaking way in its final act. Then again, what did you expect from the director of Grave of the Fireflies?

Runner-up: The Lego Movie, which is indeed awesome.

Best Hollywood Satire: Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)

Maps to the Stars

In Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg gives us a funhouse-mirror version of Hollywood populated by psychopathic movie stars, snake-oil salesmen, and fucked-up child actors. So, yeah, pretty much the same as real-world Hollywood. Cronenberg’s funniest movie since eXistenZ, it’s at once a brutal comedy, a silly ghost story, a revenge thriller, and everything in between. While the parts don’t necessarily add up to a cohesive whole, there’s a lot to love here, particularly when it comes to the performances, starting with a great turn by Julianne Moore as an aging actress with deep-seated mommy issues and a distinct lack of anything remotely resembling empathy (watch her sing “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” to celebrate the death of a child that allows her to land her dream part). It’s the kind of movie that looks like it could crumble at any moment, and some would argue that it eventually does, but while it’s going, it’s quite the rush.

Most Brutal Indictment of Capitalism: A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)

A Most Violent Year

Chandor’s third feature, following the drastically different but equally impressive Margin Call and All is Lost, A Most Violent Year looks and feels like a classic gangster movie, with the notable difference that it features no actual gangster. Set in January of 1981, it follows Abel Morales (the great Oscar Isaac, delivering a performance that couldn’t be more different from his turn as a tormented folk singer in last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis), a young New York heating-oil tycoon and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, who once again manages to turn a somewhat underwritten part into a complex, fascinating character), as they try to survive a number of professional, personal, and legal calamities. Beset on all sides by people determined to see him fall, most notably his competitors, who in 1981 still see themselves as robber barons (emphasis on the robber part), Abel tries desperately to cling to his principles, fighting to the end to keep his integrity intact. “I’m not a gangster,” Abel says repeatedly, but, well, by the end of the movie, he kinda is. And if a man as righteous and principled as Abel has no choice but to jettison his integrity if he wants to survive in the capitalist jungle, just imagine what happens to those without his scruples.

Runner-ups: Nightcrawler, which is actually about ethics in morning news journalism, and Two Days, One Night, which doubles up as one of the most honest and devastating cinematic portrayals of depression.

Best Coming-of-age Story Not Named Boyhood: Girlhood (Céline Sciamma)

Bande de filles

Another third feature, Girlhood isn’t exactly a departure from the themes Céline Sciamma explored in her first two movies (2011’s Tomboy and 2007’s Water Lilies, one of the best directorial debuts of the past decade), more of a sideway move. The film focuses on Marieme (Karidja Touré), a young black girl growing up in the projects right outside of Paris, but it isn’t one of those inspirational movies chronicling the rise of an individual out of adversity and poverty through, say, academic, athletic, or musical achievement. No, Girlhood is more interested in the people those movies usually forget about. Marieme is not wanted at school, and she faces tremendous pressure at home, forever tormented by an older brother who keeps tabs on her at all times and physically abuses her, all in the name of protecting her. So Marieme falls in with a gang of girls (the literal translation of the film’s original title, Bande de filles) who, like her, are outsiders, and becomes Vic. Girlhood is a great coming-of-age story, with many a fantastic scene (including a wordless one set to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” that reduced me to tears both times I saw it), but it’s also an astute look into how we collectively fail kids like Vic and her friends every day, and what consequences this has for them and for society at large.

(It also led to one of my favorite moviegoing moments of the year: the first time I saw it was on opening day, and the theater was packed with teenage black girls, come to see the rare film starring people who actually look like them. They were a rowdy crowd, for better and worse, and while they made a lot of noise and comments, it was always in reaction to the movie, not because they were bored and talking about something else. Near the end, though, there’s a scene in which Vic and a drug dealer get into a staredown, and the scene’s so tense that not a sound could be heard. And then the dealer growls at Vic to lower her eyes, and a girl in the back cried out, “Don’t!” Talk about identifying with a character.)

Best Film Not Named Boyhood: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

The Grand Budapest Hotel

For the longest time Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was my favorite film of the year. In fact, nothing that came out during the first half of the year even came close. A zany comedy that moves at breakneck speed anchored by Ralph Fiennes’s brilliantly controlled performance as Monsieur Gustave, the concierge of the titular hotel, and peopled by Anderson’s usual collection of colorful characters (including Adrien Brody as the evil Dmitri, once again proving that he’s much better at doing comedy than drama), The Grand Budapest Hotel is also a movie about nostalgia, its attraction and its dangers. (In that sense, it has more in common with the movie that occupied this very spot on my list last year than you’d think.) An accusation sometimes levied at Wes Anderson is that his films are all style and no substance, that his carefully-framed shots and his incredible eye for detail are but smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that he has nothing to say, but it couldn’t be more wrong. If The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most Andersonesque of his movies, it isn’t only because it is the culmination of an aesthetic he’s been refining ever since Bottle Rocket, but also because, through the characters of Monsieur Gustave and his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), it reiterates his belief in the inherent decency of people, and his frustration at the madness of the world.

Best Film: Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

Boyhood

Yeah, it’s not the most original choice, but what can I say? Boyhood is at once incredibly ambitious (shot over twelve years, etc., etc.) and extremely intimate. Following Ellar Coltrane as Mason from age 6 to 18, it’s as much about him as it is about his parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and their more-or-less successful attempts at becoming responsible adults. Proceeding through a series of often-disjointed scenes (how else are you going to shoot a movie over twelve years anyway?), Boyhood is at once universal and very specific. (All three times I saw it, the two scenes that got the biggest laughs out of the French audience I was with were the “Do I look like a Barack Hussein Obama voter to you?” line and Mason’s sixteenth birthday, for which he receives a suit, a bible, and a gun. The latter in particular must have felt particularly alien to those Parisian crowds.) Among the movie’s impressive accomplishments are the way it perfectly captures the malleability of teenage identity (something Girlhood also does, in different ways), which allows Mason to bro it up when drinking cheap beer and talking about girls with his buddies and their older brothers before, a couple years later, turning into a nail polish-wearing artist/slacker, as well as the way it gives a voice to the adults and to their experiences (Arquette’s “I thought there would be more” breaks my heart every time). It’s a movie that could have been little more than a gimmick and which, in Linklater’s and his actors’ hands, turns into much more than that, a meditation on many of Linklater’s favorite themes and a reflection on what it means to grow up, on what is gained and what is lost in the process. Boyhood, in short, is joy.

And here it is, my top 25, in reverse order:

25. Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Tsui Hark)
24. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
23. Locke (Steven Knight)
22. Mister Turner (Mike Leigh)
21. Love at First Fight (Thomas Cailley)
20. The Lego Movie (Phil Lord & Chris Miller)
19. Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice (Lucie Borleteau)
18. Han Gong-ju (Lee Su-jin)
17. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
16. In Order of Disappearance (Hans Peter Molland)
15. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
14. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)
13. John Wick (Chad Stahelski & David Leitch)
12. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
11. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
10. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
9. Love is Strange (Ira Sachs)
8. Mommy (Xavier Dolan)
7. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
6. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
5. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
4. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
3. Girlhood (Céline Sciamma)
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

And honorable mentions, movies that didn’t quite make it for one reason or another, but are well worth checking out (in alphabetical order):

’71 (Yann Demange); Black Coal, Thin Ice (Yi’nan Diao); Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier); Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo); Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves); A Girl at my Door (July Jung); Godzilla (Gareth Edwards); Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn); Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski); Joe (David Gordon Green); A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn); Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch); The Rover (David Michôd); Starred Up (David Mackenzie); Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan); We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson).

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