In most years, it is difficult to find even ten decent movies. This year, there was a bit of competition for the Best Ten list, and I managed to add three by adding special categories of manimation, musical, and documentary to augment the list. So it was a pretty good year, in spite of the proliferation of absolute junk that becomes weightier with time.
1. Mr. Turner
Who but Mike Leigh would have the brilliant foresight to entrust a leading role to the grotesque Timothy Spalls? And what a performance Spalls gives, creating a portrait of the artist as an inarticulate bull who is too pre-occupied with the beauty of light to pay much attention to the human dramas that cautiously encircle him. Leigh abandons his grungy kitchen sink visuals to pay tribute here to Stanley Kubrick, with the most impeccably composed and lit images of his career. The movie is worth seeing just for the shots of the countryside that function, in Ozu style, as transitional relief between the dramatic scenes.
2. Dance of Reality
I made the mistake of ordering a pizza in Chili, and, finding it inedible, offered it to a street dog, who refused it. Chilean movies are, for the most part, as unappetizing as their food, but Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first feature in 23 years single-handedly redeems that country’s cinematic sins, if not its hellish cuisine. This is a memory film on the order of Fellini’s Amarcord, exploding with Jodorowsky’s singular imagery and iced with his intellectual and spiritual wisdom.
Brenden Gleeson plays a priest who realizes the church has failed its congregation to such a degree that their only hope for redemption is a second crucifixion, and that he is the appointed martyr. Infidels hate this movie, but it is a masterpiece, boasting the year’s best script, and Gleeson’s performance stands alongside Gunnar Bjornstrand’s portrayal of the crisis-ridden priest in Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light.
4. Clouds of Sils Maria
Here is the evidence that “Twilight” has not completely ruined Kristen Stewart as an actress. she holds her own against Juliette Binoche, who here gives her best performance since the Three Colors trilogy. Writer-director Oliver Assayas displays an intimate familiarity with the daily drudgery of celebrity living. He also succeeds in finessing the life-imitating-art conundrum that has given so much trouble to lesser film-makers.
5. Begin Again
I never liked Keira Knightley in the costume pictures that made her famous. And her method of doing most of her acting with unsightly mouth gesticulations has always irritated me. But I like some of her recent work in contemporary roles, though not enough to subject myself to the torture of enduring another piece of crap by the dreadful amateur director Lynn Shelton (“Laggies”). John Carney, however, is a perfect director for her, his easy naturalism off-setting her tendency toward ostentatious posing. He also knows a lot about music and musicians, as was evidenced in his 2006 breakout “Once,” and the scene in which a drunk producer imagines a commercial arrangement of a nondescript song sung indifferently to an indifferent crowd is priceless
Recipe for an outstanding science fiction picture in the age of CGI production and formula story construction: Take a short story written in 1959 by Robert Heinlein (All You Zombies), write a film script with your twin brother that keeps the story and dialog intact and co-direct the picture with your brother. Hire two excellent actors who can draw an audience deep into the psychology and motivation of their desperately convoluted characters (Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook) and let the dialog crackle. Don’t give a damn about how far-fetched the premise is because this is science fiction and science fiction is nurtured by the imagination, not the money logic of intellectual theft and the spreading of the stupidity virus.
While not in the same league as Jan Troell’s 1972 masterpiece, “The New Land,” this Danish western beats the hell out of any other western this year, including the miserably over-rated and spastically titled “The Homesman.” When Clint Eastwood finished shooting ‘Unforgiven,” I had the opportunity to ask him if the western would ever regain the popularity it once enjoyed. He answered that he believed good movies would continue to be made in all genres, but he doubted that the western would ever dominate the market as it once did. “The Salvation” is evidence that a good western still is possible, although the genre is pretty much dead. The remake of “True Grit,” which was closer to a remake of “The Wizard of Oz” was the last really popular western, while the half-way decent but critically maligned “The Lone Ranger” was sent to Hell. The same will probably happen to this excellent revenge tale.
This is writer-director Dan Gilroy’s first time directing, but he has been a successful screenwriter since 1992 (The Fall, The Bourne Legacy), and he knows a lot more about how to make things work than most of the Hollywood scalawags. From the opening scene, I wanted to know just what kind of character Jake Gyllenhaal was playing and he had me guessing right up to the end. Gilroy is a superb director of actors, and his wife Rene Russo is better here than she ever was as in her glamour days. The action scenes are just as polished, with fast car scenes as good as anything William Friedkin pulled off in “The French Connection.” All of this is just to say that this when adding up the writing, directing, acting, and action talent in this modest picture, you’ve got a knockout debut that gets everything right.
9. A Walk Among the Tombstones
I admit that Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books are my favorite detective series, and I can’t imagine a better actor actor than Liam Neeson for the character, so I was predisposed to like this picture. It is little more than a decent rendering of the novel, but had it been lousy, I would have hated it.
10. Still Alice
This unsentimental chronicle of a woman’s struggle with the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease is too real to be a big hit with audiences who like their old people to follow the template of cranky yet lovable kooks like the phony boloney Bruce Dern served up in last year’s “Nebraska.” The real terror of losing one’s identity as death gains on them is seldom addressed in the sickening sweetness of mendacious soap operas such as Sarah Polley’s 2006 tearjerker, “Away from Her,” which snagged an undeserved Golden Globe award for star Julie Christie. Everyone in Hollywood knows that Julianne Moore deserves the Oscar for her performance in “Still Alice,” but I will be surprised if justice is served. The dream factory doesn’t give prizes for waking nightmares.
Best Animation: Tale of Princess Kaguyat
When her life is destroyed by her parents’ plots to marry her off to lecherous nobles, The Moon Princess forgets why she came to Earth and makes the wish to escape her circumstances. The story works as a swan song for Japan’s Ghibli Studios as well as an allegory for life itself. We come into being out of a desire to run and play with the birds and animals, to drink the clear water and smell the fresh vegetation. Then other people manipulate us into constructing artificial personalities in order to attain a survival niche. Soon we die, returning to wherever we came from, and forgetting all we experienced in life. I watched a lot of animation this year, and nothing close to the artistic and philosophical heights of “The Tale of Princess Kaguyat.”
Best Documentary: 20,000 Days on Earth
Nick Cave is one of the finest writers in the field of popular music, and this documentary, filmed during the period of recording his most recent album, “Push the Sky Away,” reveals the depth and integrity of his work. He is open, honest, and sincere in sharing both his reminisces and creative processes. Instead of the usual celebrity bullshit that undermines most attempts at get up close and personal with a rockstar, this picture simply invites the audience to share a few of the 20,000 days Nick Cave has spent on Earth.
Musical: Jersey Boys
Clint Eastwood does a decent job of bringing the Broadway version of the Four Seasons story to the screen. It suffers from the elliptical erraticism of stage musicals, as well as conforming to the template of lies upon which so many celebrity bios are sketched, but Eastwood finds some truth in the fabrications, making it a much better film than “Dreamgirls.” It might not interest those who lack fond memories of early sixties’ pop music, but there must be millions who would enjoy this picture, but don’t know that it exists.
Next: The Decent, the over-rated, and the outright lousy pictures of 2014