2014, Best of 2014, Borgman, Calvary, cinema, favorite films, film reviews, films, Grand Piano, Housebound, Jodorowsky's Dune, Movies, Nymphomaniac, Obvious Child, Rhymes For Young Ghouls, Under the Skin, Wrong Cops, year in review, year-end lists
We began with ten of my picks for the best films of 2014 and will now end with the other ten: proving how fluid these types of lists are for me, I’ve already whittled one film off in order to make the list an even twenty…life, as we know, is a constant state of flux. As with the first half, none of these are specifically ranked, with the exception of the final listing. Let’s do this.
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The Best Films of 2014 (cont.)
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Coming across as a particularly cold combination of Michael Haneke’s misanthropic odes to the futility of modern life (particularly Funny Games) and the bizarrely Dadaist films of Greek eccentric Yorgos Lanthimos, Dutch genius Alex van Warmerdam’s newest film, Borgman, is a weird, creepy little marvel that almost defies description. A mysterious vagrant insinuates himself into a well-to-do family’s life, ala Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and ends up destroying them from the inside-out. The elevator pitch doesn’t sound particularly odd but Warmerdam isn’t the kind of filmmaker who does anything by the book: blackly comic, surreal, oppressive, nightmarish and oddly fairy-tale-like, Borgman worms its way into your brain and latches on like a pit bull with lockjaw.
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The absolute closest thing to Hitchcock since the Master of Suspense shuffled off this mortal coil (put your hand down, DePalma), Eugenio Miro’s relentless Grand Piano was one of the biggest surprises in recent memory. The setup is so simple that it seems impossible to carry across a full-length film: a retired concert pianist reemerges to play a concerto on his dead mentor’s prize piano, only to receive messages from a mysterious person during the packed performance that indicate he’ll be shot dead if he stops playing or makes a mistake. From this intriguing, if limited premise, Miro shoots for the moon and winds up somewhere in a far, undiscovered galaxy. Elijah Wood, who’s quickly becoming one of my favorite genre actors, is perfect as the pianist but the real star of the film is Miro’s flawless direction and a ridiculously air-tight script by Damien Chazelle. Grand Piano is full of so many amazing setpieces and thrilling scenes that I was, literally, on the edge of my seat for the entire film: one of the most nail-biting moments I witnessed all year involves nothing more than sheet music and a cell phone and it’s astounding. The fact that this film didn’t open huge and play to massive audiences is one of the best indications that the future of cinema lies in the margins, with the truly unique outsiders, rather than anything that plays the multiplexes.
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Rhymes For Young Ghouls
A coming-of-age film…a period piece about life on Canadian Indian reservations during the ’70s…a heist film…a family drama…a revenge drama…Rhymes for Young Ghouls is all of these things and so much more. Anchored by the amazing performance of Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs as the hard-nosed, resilient and, frankly, awesome Aila, writer-director Jeff Barnaby’s feature-length debut is nothing short of inspirational. I was never less than enthralled by anything that happened in the film (the brief animated segment, by itself, is one of the coolest cinematic moments of the year) and was frequently caught with a giant lump in my throat: when Rhymes For Young Ghouls is firing on all cylinders, there’s an epic quality to the filmmaking that actually echoes Scorsese. I went into Rhymes for Young Ghouls knowing nothing about the film whatsoever and left with my head on backwards. The fact that I really haven’t seen the film mentioned anywhere is testament to the fact that some awfully amazing gems seem to be falling through the cracks lately. An utterly vital, essential debut.
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Under the Skin
Lyrical, lush, atmospheric and experimental, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin was probably one of the most beautiful films I watched all year. There’s something almost hypnotic about the way Glazer blends eerie surrealism with the quiet, hushed tone of the film. Johansson is actually perfect as the mysterious, other-worldly woman who picks up guys on the nighttime streets of Glasgow and then…well, what, exactly? One of the supreme joys of Under the Skin is how little Glazer holds viewers’ hands: there’s never an “info dump,” no tedious flashbacks to over-explain twists and precious little dialogue to intrude on the near suffocating stillness. When the film jets off into the unknown, as in the “assimilation” scenes, Glazer’s film stakes out territory that puts it in the company of pioneers like 2001, albeit on a much smaller scale. Under the Skin is the kind of film that cinephiles can (and should) think about and digest for years to come.
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As my pick for the best horror film of 2014, Housebound still wasn’t a shoe-in for my overall list: as I mentioned elsewhere, I used very different criteria to determine the “horror” vs “overall” lists and many films that made my horror list didn’t carry across to the other. Housebound did for a simple reason: it’s not only the best horror film of 2014, it’s one of the best films of the year, period. Extremely well-balanced, with an expert mixture of humor and horror, I could see Housebound appealing to any and everyone, not just the horror-hounds in the audience. Morgana O’Reilly and Rima Te Wiata are outstanding as the mother-daughter ghost-hunting duo, giving us plenty to care about amidst the usual spooky high-jinks and haunted house tropes. To make it even better, O’Reilly’s Kylie Bucknell is an instantly iconic female ass-kicker, a strong-willed, take-no-shit woman who needs a white knight like she needs a hole in the head. When I wasn’t laughing, I was cheering: when I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, I was karate-kicking the ceiling fan. Housebound is an absolute blast to watch and is only writer-director Gerard Johnstone’s first film: I absolutely can’t wait for his next fifteen movies.
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So many films have been made since the advent of cinema, so many more than any of us will be able to see in a lifetime, that it seems a little strange to celebrate and discuss a movie that was never made. When the film is question is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed adaptation of Dune, however, a film that was actually posited as a source of enlightenment for humanity and a way to help it achieve another level of spiritual evolution…well, it seems like we could probably take a few minutes to reflect on that, dontcha think? There was nothing conventional about Jodorowsky’s plans for Dune whatsoever: from casting Salvador Dali as the Emperor of Space to commissioning Pink Floyd to provide the music for one of the planets (not for the entire film, mind you…just as a theme for one particular part) to utilizing one of the most famous graphic artists of the era as a storyboard artist, Jodorowsky followed his muse at every step. His only intention was to create pure art and enlighten humanity: compare and contrast that with our current glut of superhero films and it’s clear that Jodorowsky wouldn’t even fit into our modern era, let alone in his. Fascinating, inspirational and full of so many amazing stories and anecdotes that it almost becomes overwhelming, Jodorowsky’s Dune is anchored by the man himself, Alejandro Jodorowsky, 84-years-young at the time of filming and so much more alive and vital than most people a tenth of his age. More than anything, the amazing documentary is a testament to the notion that you should never stop reaching for the stars, even if your feet are firmly stuck on terra firma.
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Nymphomaniac Vols 1 & 2
Sprawling, messy, over-the-top, frequently unpleasant and always impossible to look away from, auteur Lars von Trier’s epic-length ode to female sexuality (a staggering 5.5 hours in the director’s cut, which is definitely the way to go, if you’re going at all) is a stunner in every sense of the word. The film doesn’t always work and von Trier is up to all of his old provocateur antics here but it’s impossible to deny that Nymphomaniac is one of the most awe-inspiring films of the years. There’s a level of ambition here that’s daunting: at times, the film’s endless digressions, footnotes and asides begin to feel like a pornographic version of House of Leaves come to bold, colorful life. This will absolutely not be for everyone…hell, it probably won’t be for many people, to be honest: when the film is raw, it’s in-your-face raw and the frequent (real) sex can be a bit numbing after a while. There’s also the underlying question of whether von Trier actually has any business discussing female sexuality at all: it’s a valid concern, to be honest, and one that actually feels like it gets addressed, internally, as the film progresses, almost as if the writer-director is working out his own thoughts and beliefs as the story unfolds…it’s a complex issue and one that demands to be discussed at length and out loud. While I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with von Trier cinematically (or personally, although that’s a discussion for another time and venue), there’s no denying that his last three films, Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, have been bold, visually stunning and thoroughly unique works of art. Love him or hate him as a person but ignore him at your own risk: for folks that can handle it, Nymphomaniac is nothing short of essential.
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John Michael McDonagh’s debut, The Guard, was a massively fun, ridiculously engaging film that featured a whirlwind performance from Irish national treasure Brendan Gleeson at its center and had one of the freshest, tightest scripts around. For the followup, Calvary, McDonagh opts to stick with Gleeson and the results are nothing short of cinematic perfection. There’s an overlying air of regret and fatalism to this story about a happy-go-lucky, small-town Irish priest who’s told by an unknown man, during confession, that’s he’s to be killed at the end of the week as revenge for the Catholic Church’s child molestation scandal. As Gleeson’s Father James runs about the town, conducting his own unofficial investigation in order to discover the identity of his would-be assassin, he uncovers a hidden world of resentment, anger and hatred, much of it directed at the clergy. Unbelievably powerful and bleak, Calvary is an absolutely stunning film with a conclusion that punches you right in the face. In a lifetime filled with more amazing roles and performances than seems humanly possible, Gleeson, somehow, manages to top himself, once again. For my money, Calvary was probably the single best drama of the year, a purely old-fashioned and cinematic marvel that reminds us of the time when all you needed to flatten an audience was tremendous acting, a remarkable script and a filmmaker with the patience and vision to make it all happen. This is powerful, moving cinema as its very best.
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When it came time to put together my Best of 2014 list, I instantly knew that Gillian Robespierre’s debut, Obvious Child, was going to be there: the only real question was “top spot or lower.” While it didn’t go on to take the top honors, there was nothing easy about the decision at all…in fact, I’m still agonizing about it as I continue to type out this particular missive.
Into a year that seemed hellbent on declaring out-right war on women (threats of violence against female journalists, widespread denial of rape allegations, Stone Age legislative rulings regarding women’s health and reproductive rights) came Robespierre’s bittersweet Obvious Child, an honest-to-god abortion comedy (the only other one I can even think of is Citizen Ruth), a smart, funny, sweet honest and uncompromising film that was the furthest thing from a stereotypical rom-com, yet held enough of the DNA to still be identifiable as such. At the center of it all is stand-up comedian/voice actor Jenny Slate, in a role that should guarantee her status as a star: Slate is simply perfect in the film, displaying a range and depth that would be impressive on a “professional” actor, much less a stand-up comedian. Nothing about the movie is obvious (despite the title) and anyone expecting a typically Hallmark resolution will probably be pleasantly surprised: there’s too much honesty here for any of the characters to delude themselves as far as that goes. By turns hilarious, heartfelt and always authentic, Obvious Child was that rarest of finds in 2014: a film that I wished would just keep going on, into infinity. Here’s a little future forecast for all of you fine folks: Gillian Robespierre will be one of the world’s foremost filmmakers in a remarkably short amount of time, mark my words.
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Nineteen films down, one to go. While everything that preceded this could be considered unranked (although Obvious Child would still be very near the top), my final selection is very definite: I saw this particular film all the way back in April of 2014 and it never left my head throughout the year. At times, scenes would just pop into my brain out of nowhere, as if my subconscious was happily rewatching the film, internally, without my express written consent. It’s a film that I can look at from end to end and find nothing worth complaining about, nothing that detracts from the overall massive awesomeness. When I look back at my absolute favorite films over the years, movies like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, The Godfather, Goodfellas, 2001 and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there’s a unity of vision to them, a sort of perfect totality of world building that makes them impossible to escape (for me, at least), similar to shiny, jangly things for a jackdaw. I may like quite a few films and probably love a few more than most people do but there’s a very fixed, specific list of films that I consider to absolute, stone-cold classics. It has nothing to do with age, notoriety, “hip-factor” (or lack thereof), indie vs studio or any such easy distinctions. When a film is an utter classic, a little voice goes off in my head and that’s pretty much it: I can give great reasons, rationales and critiques until the cows come home but it all comes down to that little internal guide, that quiet little voice that hasn’t steered me wrong in some 30-odd years of cinematic obsession. With all of that being said, my choice as the single best film of calendar year 2014 is…
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In a year filled with such stunning, critic-proof films as The Grand Budapest Hotel, Under the Skin and Obvious Child, what right do I have to select this incredibly gonzo little oddity as the best of the best? Let me see if I can’t try to break it down a little, before we circle around to that whole “internal voice” thing. Right off the bat, French musician/film auteur Quentin Dupieux is one of the most unusual, singular and amazing filmmakers currently living: it’s absolutely no hyperbole to place him in the same impressive echelon as folks like Luis Bunuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky or David Lynch. For my money, what makes an auteur is a singularly unified vision, the kind of vision that can be instantly recognized from film to film without falling into the territory of slavish duplication. In particular, I think of filmmakers like Wes Anderson or Scorsese: their films may (for the most part) be very different from each other but there’s always the overriding notion of returning to a particular universe.
Beginning with his 2002 debut, Nonfilm, Dupieux has been quietly and confidently blowing minds for the following decade plus. The hallmark of a Dupieux film is an amazing synthesis of the absurd and comic with the dark and deranged: his third film, the astonishing Rubber, is about a sentient tire (as in, the kind that goes on the wheel of a car) that “wakes up” with the ability to blow things up with its mind, falls in love with a human woman and sets out on a mission of revenge, all while the film’s “audience” (ie: us) watches the proceedings from the sidelines. The followup, Wrong, concerns a mild-mannered nebbish who loses his dog and stumbles into a bizarre world of pet cults, psychic pooches, the evolution of mankind and more repeated insanity than a thousand Groundhog Days stacked end to end.
While Dupieux’s previous films were mind-blowing, unforgettable pieces of cinematic insanity in their own rights, Wrong Cops is like Dupieux decided to just take it all to the next level, cut out the safety net and just go for it. On the surface, there’s nothing about Wrong Cops that should work: the cast is full of comics, which doesn’t always guarantee the sturdiest acting; Marilyn Manson plays a nerdy teenager; the humor is crude, scatological, politically incorrect and often outrageous (one of the main characters is a happily married father who stars in violent, homosexual porn as a side gig); there’s a sense of absurdity that can be downright confounding and the film is in constant motion, so jittery and kinetic as to be the cinematic equivalent of a facial tic. No one in the film can remotely be considered a “good” (or even sympathetic character) and the notion that Dupieux is constantly winking at us is never far behind.
And yet…and yet, for all of this marvelous insanity, Wrong Cops works so astoundingly well that it almost makes me misty-eyed. Dupieux is such an assured master of the surreal and bizarre, ala Bunuel, that we trust him with the wheel, even though we have no idea where he’s driving. Bits that seem like throw-away jokes (one of my favorites being the grievously wounded fellow who’s dragged all the way to a record exec’s office just so he can weigh in on whether a particular track is “cool” or not) all pay off, in the long run, and everything in this nonsensical universe eventually makes sense, even if it’s not in any conventional sense of the term. More than any film this year, Wrong Cops is a film that boldly says “Trust me: I know what I’m doing” and then goes on to prove that fact.
While the surreal filmmaking and script are sheer perfection, this would all collapse like a bad souffle if there weren’t such a rock-solid, amazing ensemble to hold it all together. The incredibly game cast, while includes Mark Burnham, Eric Wareheim, Eric Judor, Ray Wise, Steve Little and Arden Myrin, give it their all: when everyone involved seems this invested, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the madness. Hell, even Marilyn Manson puts his performance square between the goal posts: his scenes with Mark Burnham are a perfect combination of creepy, weird and sweet and pretty much form the bedrock of the film (the movie is actually an expansion of a short that primarily featured that relationship). Combine this with a truly awesome, trippy soundtrack, courtesy of good ol’ Dupieux (he’s also a famous French electro-artist who performs and records under the name Mr. Oizo) and Wrong Cops folds you up in its crazy, multi-colored, batshit world and never lets you go.
There were many films this year that I respected and plenty of films that I loved. Wrong Cops, however, was one of the few films that I actually felt like I “needed.” As someone who’s addicted to outsider fare like Taxidermia, Dogtooth and the like, I often find it incredibly difficult to get my “fix”: I might go years between truly astounding finds and, sometimes, it can feel a little like wandering through a desert in search of an oasis. Ever since I discovered Dupieux, however, I can finally get that jolt that I need so badly, on a semi-regular basis: in many ways, Dupieux is a filmmaker that seems to be making films just for me…how the hell could I not consider that the greatest thing ever?
Will Wrong Cops have any relevance to non-acolytes of the Church of Quentin? If you appreciate bold, uncompromising, exquisitely made films with a surreal bent and zero desire to coddle, there is no way you won’t completely fall in love with Dupieux and his filmography. For my money, one of the single most important qualities for a true lover of film to have is an open mind: you will not and cannot experience anything new and wonderful unless you’re willing to step outside your comfort zone and take that leap of faith. When it all comes together, like some sort of cosmic plan, the results can be life-affirming.
For all of these reasons and so many more, Quentin Dupieux’s Wrong Cops is my selection as the single best film of 2014, topping a crowded field and nineteen other contenders.
Stay tuned for the final wrap-up on 2014 as we prepare to return to our regularly scheduled broadcast here on The VHS Graveyard. It’s been a long journey but we’re finally home.