The Best Films of 2014

by PopMatters Staff

30 December 2014

Spanning a Truffaut-indebted magnum opus to a comeback vehicle for Michael Keaton, this collection of films is an eclectic representation of 2014's best.
 

Spanning a Truffaut-indebted magnum opus to a comeback vehicle for Michael Keaton, this collection of films is an eclectic representation of 2014’s best.

 

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The Immigrant

Director: James Gray
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee

(Keep Your Head)

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The Immigrant
James Gray


James Gray, who is quickly becoming one of America’s greatest/most unsung auteurs, decided it was time for him to make a “woman’s picture”, the kind of Barbara Stanwyck-vehicle he’d grown up loving, and which Hollywood hasn’t been making in ages. Borrowing from Puccini and Fellini, Gray made The Immigrant a sweeping, operatic drama starring a luminous Marion Cotillard as Ewa, a Polish immigrant who arrives in ‘20s New York and finds her dreams shattered when she ends up becoming a prostitute, brutally exploited by a ruthless pimp (Joaquin Phoenix). Shot in nostalgic sepias by Darius Kondji, the film feels like a valentine to a lost era, immensely critical of the American dream while remaining magical and kind to its protagonist, establishing Cotillard as the actress with the greatest, most expressive face since Garbo. Jose Solís

 

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Last Days in Vietnam

Director: Rory Kennedy
Cast: Henry Kissinger, Frank Snepp, Richard Armitage, Binh Pho, Phong Bui, Stuart Harrington, Miki Nguyen

(IFC Films, American Experience Films)

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Last Days in Vietnam
Rory Kennedy


“You can’t stay here. You can’t live with the Communists.” Remembering the fall of Saigon in 1975, Binh Pho, a college student at the time, underlines the utter lack of options before him. “Especially,” he adds, “if you have a connection with the Americans, then you really got to get out.” This idea, this need to get out, is the starting point for Rory Kennedy‘s smart, poignant documentary Last Days in Vietnam. On the one hand, the film makes clear the damage done to Vietnam by the US government and military, as institutions defined and limited by their self-interests. The end of the US war was not even close to an end for the people in Southeast Asia, despite the chaotic rush to exit that is perhaps best remembered in the West’s collective memory as Hubert Van Es’ photograph of South Vietnamese civilians climbing a ladder to a US helicopter, set atop the Pittman Apartments. The film makes a subtler case too, that the end of the US war was not even really the end for the US. Even as American personnel departed, they left behind friends and colleagues, family members and memories, only to bring back with them a profound, multifaceted sense of loss that shapes the national consciousness to this day. Cynthia Fuchs

 

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The Lego Movie

Director: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Cast: Chris Pratt, Emily Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson

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The Lego Movie
Phil Lord and Chris Miller


The subtext of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s cheeky, retro-subversive The Lego Movie isn’t buried too far beneath its plastic brick surface. But even though it’s a feature-length commercial for a world-conquering toy brand that makes sure to find room to plug a few other big-ticket media franchises (DC comics, Star Wars), it still offers genuine artistry. With as much in common with Battleship and the GI Joe movies as with The 400 Blows, this past weekend’s box-office winner might be mostly empty calories, but they’re tasty. Unlike so many kids’ movies today, its animation style doesn’t draw attention to its dazzling newness, but instead evokes the action-figure stop-motion of Robot Chicken and thousands of amateur videos. The humor is also somewhat retro, occasionally surreal, as though some YouTube snark-snipers have been let loose in the company candy shop. The Lego Movie isn’t exactly calling for open rebellion against the corporate toy complex that provides its title: it means to sell interlocking plastic blocks. But in a world of cloud server-scheduled childhoods, proposing that kids should be left alone to play however they damn well feel like it seems at least mildly rebellious. Chris Barsanti

 

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Manakamana

Director: Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez
Cast: Chabbi Lal Gandharba, Anish Gandharba, Bindu Gayek, Narayan Gayek, Gopika Gayek, Khim Kumari Gayek, Chet Kumari Gayek, Hom Kumari Gayek, Simen Pariyar, Anil Paija, Saroj Gandharba, Bakhraharu, Mithu Gayek, Isan Brant, Mily, Lila Gayek, Bishnu Maya Gayek, ‘Kaale’ Dharma Raj Gayek, ‘Kaale’ Ram Bahadur Gayek

(Cinema Guild  )

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Manakamana
Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez


The goats look worried. I can’t recall another film where a scene showing goats was so revelatory, so weird, so funny and sad. But here they are in Manakamana, a foursome of goats, tied so that their movements are limited, riding in a cable car to a temple in the Ghorka district of Nepal. When the car bumps or sways or the cables grind, the goats react, scrambling to maintain their hoofy footing, bleating as if in surprise, pulling against the ropes that keep their necks in place, occasionally lowering their heads as if in submission or even some sort of goaty prayer. Here one wonders how one might measure their awareness, what they know and forget, how they manage time. Can goats worry? If they can’t know that the ride is over in ten minutes, they also can’t know what awaits them when it’s over. Can they remember what precedes it? If they do, how might this matter for goats? It’s a moment you won’t soon forget, watching them. Cynthia Fuchs

 

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The Missing Picture (L’image manquante)

Director: Rithy Panh
Cast: Randal Douc (narrator)

(Strand Releasing)

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The Missing Picture (L’image manquante)
Rithy Panh


“We understand the Khmer Rouge by watching their footage. Pol Pot forges a reality conforming to his desire. Even nature must conform.” Rithy Panh’s assessment (narrated in English by Jean-Baptiste Phou) sounds right. In the Khmer Rouge’s simultaneously elaborate and rudimentary efforts to create reality, you might see their practices and, perhaps, glimpse their motives. But you also cannot. When this assessment comes near the end of the film—Cambodia’s nominee for 2014’s Best Picture Academy Award—you see not footage by the Khmer Rouge but the mechanics of making or finding footage: hands digging through old reel cans, a projector, and a projector’s lens pointed directly at the camera, sprocket sounds loud and light flashing, momentarily making us into the very screen we cannot see. It’s a remarkable moment in a film full of remarkable moments. And it’s this discovery—of the limits of what you can know—that makes Panh’s The Missing Pictures (L’image manquante) so affecting, so devastating. You see. And you cannot. Cynthia Fuchs

 

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A Most Wanted Man

Director: Anton Corbijn
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright

(Lionsgate)

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A Most Wanted Man
Anton Corbijn


Whereas Kathryn Bigelow’s takes on the “War on Terror” (2009’s The Hurt Locker and 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty) highlight the intense bomb defusings and high-stakes targeted killings of the United States’ war strategy, Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man foregrounds the realpolitik conflicts that really drive international relations at the present. In Corbijn’s realization of John le Carré‘s 2008 novel, the movers and shakers that seek to mitigate the threat of terror burrow in the cold, industrial environs of Hamburg, Germany. Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles) tries to bring terror suspects within the Western sphere of influence, in the hopes that they might serve as informants to sniff out the locations of real terrorist cells. Unfortunately, Bachmann’s colleagues, including a higher-up in Germany’s intelligence agency (Rainer Bock) and a representative of the American government (Robin Wright), prefer different, more direct tactics, looking for the easiest way to capture anyone who ends up on a suspect list.

As these various agencies battle over the fate of a Muslim Chechen refugee named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), it becomes clear that the frontlines for the War on Terror look less like the sands of Fallujah and more like the imposing conference rooms of intelligence agencies around the globe. Corbijn’s measured and suspenseful direction brings le Carré‘s sharp vision to life; it helps that he’s met by a terrific cast, one that makes every shot of this movie exude with paranoia. A Most Wanted Man may not be an action-a-minute thriller with gunfights abound, but more than any other thriller in recent memory it captures the political realities that make up the West’s protracted conflicts in the Middle East. Brice Ezell

 

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Mr. Turner

Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Joshua McGuire, Ruth Sheen, David Horovitch, Karl Johnson

(Sony Pictures Classics)

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Mr. Turner
Mike Leigh


Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner is a superb contemplation of the English romantic artist J.M.W Turner and also of his time (1775-1851), especially his trouble fitting in that time even as he embodied it rather perfectly. At the same time, Mr. Turner thinks about time as such, as well as art, how each shapes and sometimes comes reflect the other. Turner here is a difficult individual, an egotistical genius who is alternately brilliant and brutish, sensual and remote (in this, Leigh’s movie is rather different from, say, The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game). As his moods change, his expression does not, at least not much. He growls more than he speaks, he glowers and dismisses. And sometimes, he’s enraptured. For Turner, the process never ends, his art ever allusive and ambitious, his vision inspiring—so too is Leigh’s film. Cynthia Fuchs

 

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National Gallery

Director: Frederick Wiseman

(Zipporah Films)

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National Gallery
Frederick Wiseman


National Gallery is Frederick Wiseman’s newest observation of institutional machinations, this time of London’s National Gallery. In Wiseman’s vision, not only do guides, guests, and administrators look at art, but they also talk about it. Earnestly and insistently, they talk about how to understand and frame it, to define and preserve it. As they talk, you see what they describe as well as where they are and with whom they speak. The camera observes a face or a gesture, a reflection in glass or a hand on a table, the camera pulls out or pushes in on one of the London museum’s 2400 paintings, inviting you to consider not only the many efforts to situate art but also how art might elude definition, and how people’s stories about art can be awkward and self-regarding, however earnest and insistent. National Gallery also says something about how the institution is working, how it evaluates and values its objects, and how it tells a story about itself.  Cynthia Fuchs

 

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Nightcrawler

Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton

(Open Road Films)

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Nightcrawler
Dan Gilroy


Except for a heartwarming love story, Nightcrawler provides everything you could possibly want from a movie. Because of the screenwriting experience of its writer/director Dan Gilroy (Two for the Money, The Fall, and The Bourne Legacy, among others) it has a perfectly structured plot that begins with a punch and systematically intensifies with each passing scene until its knock-out of a conclusion. It has thrilling car chases that are reminiscent of the stunt-heavy, pre-CGI chase sequences in classics like Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971), and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). It has satire that acts as a mass media slicing sword. Thanks to its cinematographer Robert Elswit, it has some of most beautiful shots of after-dark Los Angeles ever filmed. And with a truly unforgettable performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, an alienated by-product of a capitalist system gone wrong, it has powerful social commentary that lays just beneath the surface of a captivating character study. While its influences—including Pickpocket (1959),  Le Samourai (1967), Taxi Driver (1976), American Psycho (2000), Collateral (2004), and Drive (2011)—are obvious, first-time director Gilroy manages to do what only the very best directors have the ability to do: take the old and make it new. With Nightcrawler, Gilory has channeled the great films from the end of the last century to produce one of the defining films of the beginning of this century. Christopher Forsley

 

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Night Moves

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard, Alia Shawkat, Logan Miller

(Cinedigm)

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Night Moves
Kelly Reichardt


Unlike many of their counterparts elsewhere in the Western world, your average American environmental activist is more likely to be a quiet type; composting and the occasional town-hall meeting are more their speed than radical agitations. Kelly Reichardt’s quiet but steely sleeper of a thriller tracks the moral recalibration that results when nervous activist Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) crosses the Rubicon of terrorism in his quest for meaningful action. Josh watches his erstwhile Dena (Dakota Fanning) be seduced away by the cultivated dark mystery of the shadowy trailer-dwelling radical Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) who is providing their untrained sleeper cell with everything they need to blow up a dam. Steeped in the momentous paranoia of countercultural thrillers, Reichardt’s most plot-driven film to date (while still slow-paced, it’s practically a Michael Bay film compared to Old Joy) is also an impressive study of the frustrations of a collectivist underground torn between the desire to build and a suspicion that destruction might first be necessary. Chris Barsanti

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