The year’s almost over and having seen virtually every film I had the slightest bit of interest in seeing, I feel I’m ready to sit down and compile a list of the 10 best films of the year – by my own personal standards. As a film-goer I find I enjoy the rare privilege of not only going into a film as a “layman” or a devotee of the cinematic arts strictly from a consumer standpoint, but rather as a filmmaker. That added bonus enhances my appreciation for things in films that may go unnoticed by those who don’t read American Cinematographer or Filmmaker Magazine. Furthermore, when I watch any given film, I’m not only watching it from the standpoint of an audience member looking to be enthralled by a captivating story filled with characters we will learn to grow and love over a 2-hour period and sharp, witty dialogue we will be passing off as our own in future Facebook statuses, but rather from the point of view of an artist looking for inspiration from artists who are fortunate enough to be doing this for a living. If I can walk away from a film feeling motivated as a filmmaker and inspired to go out and make a film of my own in the style which inspired me, then I know I have watched something truly special.
I feel my annual “Top 10” lists can be divided into two separate “Top 5” ones. The first five films are by and large, the films that accomplish both, that is to say, satisfying both the filmmaker and the film lover in me. The bottom five, which are perfectly fine films in their own right, are films that likely appealed to me strictly on the storyteller level.
This year was quite challenging in terms of narrowing down my picks to simply 10 films as there were a lot of tremendous work being produced both internationally and domestically. You had big-budget action blockbusters like Edge of Tomorrow and X-Men: Days of Future Past which proved you can have intelligent scripts to back up all the big explosions on the screen. You had filmmakers like Nick Turturro pulling off the uncanny feat of making a more “Woody Allen” film in Fading Gigolo than Woody Allen himself made in Magic in the Moonlight. You had Nicolas Cage give a restrained(!) performance in the very nice Joe, which reminded moviegoers why we fell in love with him as an actor to begin with. We also saw the rise to prominence of Scarlett Johansson as she found her groove as the female Keanu Reeves in Lucy, where her stoic, monotone acting style actually paid off in spades. Animation continues to break new ground and deliver just as many, if not, more laughs than their live-action counterparts, cases in point being The Penguins of Madagascar (featuring a deliriously over-the-top performance by John Malkovich) and Big Hero 6.
But at the end of the day, this is a Top 10 and not a Top 20 or 30, so as much as I’d love to include some of the aforementioned films on my list, I did have to narrow things down so without any further Apu, here are the 10 films that inspired me to continue making movies and going to them.
10. THE LUNCHBOX (2013) – directed by Ritesh Batra
One of the biggest surprises of the year for me was this delightfully warm, funny and often sad look at the lives of two individuals who have suffered love and loss that find each other via a lunchbox service that has now started moonlighting as a dating service. The script keeps things very much on the level and we very rarely, if ever, deep into the kind of melodrama or romantic sappiness one would equate with the genre. Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur give very believable and subtle performances and director Ritesh Batra gives them quite the canvas to paint their delightful performances on.
9. SNOWPIERCER (2013) – directed by Bong Joon-ho
You can keep your man-child Marvel blockbusters, kids. For me, the action film of the year came all the way from South Korea’s own Bong Joon-ho. Combining some of my favorite cinematic tropes – the post-apocalyptic, dystopian sci-fi motif, comedy that’s absurd with a capital “A,” and some deliriously over-the-top acting by one of my favorite actresses, Tilda Swinton, and you have my #9 pick for film of the year. While the communist subtext of the film is about as subtle as a Megan Fox casting in a Michael Bay film, the overall concept is intriguing enough that you’ll quickly forgive the filmmaker’s idealism. On a side note, this film made me hate Marvel even more insofar as Chris Evans proves that when he isn’t shackled by the Captain America character, he really can take charge and come off as an action star who can kick some serious ass.
8. THE LEGO MOVIE (2014) – directed by Chris Miller & Phil Lord
The Lego Movie is the quintessential example of how one should not judge a book by its cover. When the concept of a movie based on Lego toys was first brought up, I’m sure people the world over reacted with a collective, “WTF?” Never in our wildest imagination did we except a contemporary take on George Orwell’s immortal classic 1984 combined with one of the funniest scripts in ages. Films like this give me hope for the Tetris films and the Hungry, Hungry Hippos films of the future. Or at the very least, have taught me to have a more “wait and see” approach before immediately deriding a film without having even read a script first.
7. BIRDMAN OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE (2014) – directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
And the award for “Most Meta Film of the Year” goes to… Here we have a film about a has-been comic book action star attempting to resurrect his career with a “prestige piece” play to prove that he still has it and furthermore, is not just simply a “movie star” but an actor. Whatever director Iñárritu’s motivation for casting Michael Keaton as the titular Birdman may have been, perception is everything and one can’t help but feel that Birdman is as close to an auto-biographical account of MIchael Keaton’s career as they come. Keaton proved he was more than game to poke a little gentle fun at himself and turned in one of the best performances of the year. Much has been made about the use of long takes and how director Iñárritu went for a Rope a la Alfred Hitchcock approach to telling his story. I didn’t find the technique to be at all distracting. In fact, given the very claustrophobic feel of the picture, in that the vast majority of the film takes place backstage at a show, the handheld, long take cinematography actually fueled the fire of giving the film a tense, almost documentary feel, which I thought was wonderful. Birdman gets extra points for a tremendous scene in which Michael Keaton’s character chews out a critic by saying what I think every artist feels about their critics – until you’ve put your heart out on the line via a work of art, you can never, and will never, be able to offer an opinion that comes off as anything more than a layman.
6. WHIPLASH (2014) – directed by Damien Chazelle
If you’re a fan of jazz, strong acting and some damn fine acting, then there must be a place on your “Top 10” for Whiplash. Director Damien Chazelle has created a truly claustrophobic piece that combined with an intense performance by J.K. Simmons and some epileptic-inducing editing will truly knock your socks off. While I’m not a musician by any stretch of the imagination, I am an artist and such I felt myself very much able to relate to the character of Andrew (played by a dead ringer for John Cusak in Miles Teller) in that I’ve had dreams of making it big as a filmmaker and I’ve been pushed to the limits by some people who’ve collaborated with me in the past. And while it’s easy for me to say this from my vantage point, I kind of almost wish there was a J.K. Simmons character who crossed paths with me and really lit a fire under my ass to rise above the status-quo of my peers and set me soaring into a new artistic stratosphere. I actually related to his character in the sense that I do agree that schools nowadays are too content to simply pat their students on the head and say, “Good job.” “Good job” may make people feel better but it also encourages a sense of complacency and if said person isn’t motivated enough, they may likely remain content throughout their life to produce “good work” and not great work. While his teaching methods are admittedly unorthodox to say the least, the motivation behind his methods are to be commended and judging by the film’s finale, are vindicated.
5. GONE GIRL (2014) – directed by David Fincher
Can you believe I almost didn’t see this one? Bar none, the best written film of the year. And from a feminist author to boot, which is rather ironic considering how this is one of the rare examples (at least in this day and age) of a major Hollywood film painting a positive picture of a man who is accused of performing something heinous to a woman. In the case of the story, Ben Affleck’s character is accused of murdering his wife. Gone Girl is a very important and very timely film in the sense that it forces us to reexamine our knee-jerk reactions when stories like this hit the press as we are often wont to immediately side with the woman on account of the “fact” that the man is “always guilty” in cases like this. If women are equal to men (and they are obviously) then surely we can not discount the fact that like men, women are capable of fabricating tales that serve to fulfill a personal agenda be it revenge, slander, defamation, etc. Gone Girl redefines the old adage that hell hath no fury as a woman scorned. Amy (played deviously by Rosamund Pike) feels trapped in a loveless marriage with Nick (Affleck) and when she catches Nick having an affair with a younger woman, devises a plan in which she fakes her own death and paints all the evidence of a murder on Nick. Now while infidelity is a sin worthy of some comeuppance, does that also include destroying a man’s reputation and life vis-a-vis a plot that would almost certainly succeed as it plays upon the gender wars that invariably favor the woman. In some respect Gone Girl brought to mind the case of Jian Ghomeshi. Now evidence has emerged which more or less cements him as being guilty. However, when the case was first brought to the nation’s attention, what struck me immediately was how quickly everyone seemed to assume he was guilty, especially considering the circumstances and how the victim was a woman. Gone Girl presents a sort of similar situation only in the film it turns out that the woman was fabricating an elaborate lie that very nearly destroyed Nick’s life as he knew it and she did it because she knew no one would ever dare to question the lie’s validity because it would be completely inappropriate and… wait for it… politically incorrect. Of course this film does paint a situation in which the “victim” is merely one in quotations and while many more may exist in reality, I can assure you that there are many, many more who are the real deal and suffer every day because of it.
4. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013) – directed by Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch is a filmmaker I’ve really come to appreciate over the years. I think I was one of the only ones who loved his last film The Limits of Control. Fortunately, it seems like everyone’s come on board for Only Lovers Left Alive if for no other reason than his embrace of the popular vampire mythology and the casting of two very hip actors at the moment – Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. But for those of you hoping for another Twilight only with a noise soundtrack, you may very disappointed to discover that the vampire motif takes a back seat to a story that many of us can relate to all too well – the feeling of being so out of touch with contemporary society that we retreat, bordering on recluse, into a world surrounded by nostalgia. There’s something to be said about a generation whose sense of art, music, fashion and otherwise anything “pop” is defined by what was “in” decades ago. Clearly the culture being perpetuated by the powers that be today is not connecting to people on that emotional level that music from the ’60s and ’70s did back in their day. Hell, when people are turning to the ’80s as a time of character and when art “meant something,” you know that contemporary culture has become a vast and vapid chasm. Director Jarmusch brilliantly addresses this plight vis-a-vis a tale involving two vampire lovers who truly have lived through centuries of change and have long since accepted the fact that there is a cyclical process in place whereby generations come and go and so do their appreciation of quality. Unfortunately, they’re presently in a down turn in this cycle and a rather unpleasant one. One so devoid of hope that they may have to, gasp(!), break their vow to drink blood directly from the source as opposed to consuming it in a more quarantined fashion (i.e. from bottles obtained at a local hospital). One can almost see the ending of the film as tragic as here we have two characters who ought to know better, eventually becoming so overwhelmed by the superficiality of society that rather than continue to rise above it, they embrace it themselves and become part of the herd. Only Lovers Left Alive is probably the most intelligent and thought-provoking “vampire” film to come along in ages and comes highly recommended.
3. VENUS IN FUR (2013) – directed by Roman Polanski
With only 3 slots left to fill, it should probably come as no surprise as to what those three films will likely be. First on the list is Roman Polanski’s brilliantly funny and sexy adaptation of the play Venus in Fur which in itself was a contemporary adaptation of the literary classic Venus in Furs. Much like Birdman, this is another example of the “meta motif” at its finest. I only read Venus in Furs for the first time this year and found it an enchanting and very insightful look at the relationships between men and women. However, this book was written in the 19th century and to say its sexual politics are outdated would be an understatement like no other. Needless to say, the book isn’t viewed as positively by certain regiments out there fighting the gender war and so a play like Venus in Fur comes along and addresses these inconsistencies with a vengeance. References are made to the idea that while a man may be submitting to a woman in the context of “BDSM play” he still very much is in control and if anything manipulates a woman even more than he’d normally do in a “vanilla context.” I would personally disagree with that as the beautiful thing about BDSM is that unlike “vanilla sex” there must be consent before anything sexual can happen. Of course, people on the outside looking in are always going to be superficial in their criticism of what they don’t understand and so therefore a play like Venus in Fur comes across like a layman trying to critique BDSM. But let’s talk about what I love about the film. Polanski manages to take what could have been a very dry and didactic philosophical art film and turned it into a scathing comedy fueled by an arousing sensuality courtesy of the beautiful and talented Emmanuelle Seigner. Folks, this her performance in this film is nothing short of a master class on how one can ooze sexuality and command the attention of an audience by simply arching an eyebrow rather than parading around naked like a trollop. Seigner’s confidence and strong command of the text propelled her character into a whole other stratosphere where I wish I could have been watching a 5-hour film starring this woman. A lot of this has to do with the fact that for the first time, that I can think of, she’s allowed to perform in her native French language. Her previous work in films like Bitter Moon or The Ninth Gate were marred by the fact that she had to act in English, a tongue that didn’t really agree with the kinds of characters she was playing. But in Venus in Fur, Seigner turned into a full-blown maîtresse. Director Polanski makes very good use of space in his film to the point where you’re so immersed in the dynamic between the two characters that you often forget that the camera never really lives the audition room where the story takes place.
2. UNDER THE SKIN (2013) – directed by Jonathan Glazer
Forgive me, ScarJo, but as much as I loved Under the Skin, there was one other film I loved even more. But back to Under the Skin. As someone who’s been going to the movies far longer than I care to guess, it takes a lot for a film to truly get under my skin and cause me to have goosebumps. Not out of fear, mind you. But out of overwhelmed by such cinematic brilliance that it lights a fire under my ass and reminds me why I became a filmmaker and why I need to keep making movies. I knew Under the Skin was one such film just after the opening credit sequence alone. Mysterious. Eerie. Intriguing. An all-out visual and aural assault on the senses. I was absolutely enthralled. And then I saw ScarJo’s boobs. OK, to be serious here, let’s talk about Scarlett Johansson. As anyone who follows me on Facebook can attest, I kinda have a thing for her. But make no mistake. The film’s inclusion at such a high spot on my list is by no means indicative of any personal bias. I actually do think Scarlett puts on a very brave and bold performance in Under the Skin, particularly at this stage in her career. She’s Black Widow people! She can pretty much “retire” to the world of safe action blockbusters and never have to put up with the “shady folk” of indie film and their “weird” scripts again. And she most certainly doesn’t have to bare it all as she has the kind of clout to determine what she can do, when she can do it, and how much she can make in the process and she can do it without ever having to take off her top. That my friends, is power. And it’s a power that she willingly chose to give up in the name of a project that clearly spoke to her as an actress and challenged her to go to places no other director was every willing or too intimidated by her star power to ever push her before. Folks, Scarlett Johansson is a real actor. A “real actor” as defined by yours truly is an actor who when given a script asks him/herself this one question above all others, “What morals, values and otherwise anything personal about my well-being am I going to have to set aside to bring this character to life.” Most actors when given the script to Under the Skin would have run away for fear of playing a character that doesn’t fit any carefully conceived image they have portrayed themselves as to the media. Scarlett Johansson did not and for that I will forever worship the ground she walks on as actors like this are extremely hard to come by. Another thing that people neglect to comment on, is Scarlett Johanssson’s incredible improv abilities which are on display throughout the picture. Remember, the vast majority of this film was made up on the spot and so in character, ScarJo had to strike up conversations with people she never met all the while keeping a careful eye on them as the men weren’t initially aware they were being filmed and in some situations, things could have gotten very nasty what with a woman and a strange guy alone together in a van on the empty road. Under the Skin looses a few points in the adaptation department. I’ve seen the film twice and read the book once and they are like night and day. The book has a very strong vegan subtext in that the ScarJo character is an alien harvesting men for meat to bring back to her home planet. She struggles with her job once she learns about the horrifying conditions the men are placed in when they’re being processed for food (like the ones animals find themselves in during their factory farming stay) and eventually quits and tries to integrate into human society. An argument can be made that the film on a superficial level is faithful to that text in the sense that ScarJo is obviously gathering men for some malevolent purpose and through an encounter with a disfigured man, she starts to develop empathy for these creatures to the point where she too quits her job and attempts to integrate into society only for said society to turn against her vis-a-vis her fatal end at the hands of a rapist. The door does remain open for a “proper” adaptation, though that version would have very big high-heeled shoes to fill in the wake of Jonathan Glazer’s masterpiece.
1. NYMPHOMANIAC (2013) – directed by Lars von Trier
Believe me, no one is more surprised than I am, that this is my pick for “Film of the Year.” When I first watched Nymphomaniac in theatres, I was horribly disappointed. I found the film to be pretentious, boring, overly long and too episodic to truly be a successful and coherent narrative. I also watched this film after an 10-hour workday and rushing over to the theatre in the nick of time to catch the opening credits. So to say I was in the right frame of mind to sit down and absorb a Lars von Trier film would be an understatement to say the least. However, in spite of this, I found myself coming back to this film again and again all year. There were scenes that stood out for me and played out in my head in which I found myself admiring von Trier’s technique and certainly the gusto of the actors involved. Things eventually brewed to a boil where I decided to buy the DVD and pop it in to give it another spin. Right after watching It’s a Wonderful Life, incidentally. Never let it be said that a film isn’t worthy of being given a second chance as I absolutely adored the film. Now, I should probably point out at this time that filmmaker John Waters and I have a lot in common. But chief among our mutual interests is a dirty little secret. Our idea of a “guilty pleasure film” isn’t something trashy like Doctor Butcher M.D. Medical Deviate, it’s pretentious art films. The more pretentious, the better. There I said it! So while I can completely understand why a person would not like Nymphomaniac for being self-indulgent and pretentious to boot. I actually found myself enjoying the film because of von Trier’s artistic self-indulgences. There’s something ballsy about a filmmaker who chooses to make a 4-hour epic on sex addiction that feature non-sequiturs like dissertations on fly fishing, Fibonacci theory and the differences between east and western churches in a time when audiences are conditioned to walk into movie theatres and be told clean-cut stories with obvious expectations that fit neatly within a three-act structure. I should add that while I can admire a “pretentious art film” even that admiration comes with an asterisk. I have to see and appreciate where the filmmaker is coming from when presenting something that may come off as “pretentious” to the layman. Upon first glance, one might pull one’s hair out when being forced to sit through a sit outlining how to properly parallel park. But when one examines scenes like this further, one comes away with an understanding a very deep chuckle over von Trier’s brilliant juxtaposition of an asexual recluse relating to a nymphomaniac’s salacious tale of sexual depravity with something the complete opposite like dry and didactic literary theory. That’s the point. You’re supposed to share Joe’s frustration because here she is pouring her heart out (and perhaps embellishing a bit too) and because her listener is someone who little to no interest in sexuality, he can only hold up his side of the conversation by talking about subjects that fascinate him. Nymphomaniac is the most brilliant, enthralling and dare I say, hilarious take on the subject of sex addiction that I have ever seen. And if I thought ScarJo was a real actor for appearing in Under the Skin, the entire cast of Nymphomaniac a collective of the bravest men and women to ever grace the silver screen. Extra points to Stacy Martin, whom I understand was making her acting debut in this film. Absolutely incredible! Films like this and actors like her are what inspire me to keep making the kinds of films I enjoy making and to not censor myself in the process for if a film like Nymphomaniac can attract the kinds of names who showed up there, I am more than confident I can attract my share of real, quality actors of my own.