Although much of the awards-bait of 2014 was mediocre at best, from “The Imitation Game” to “The Theory of Everything,” last year was still filled with wonderful films, moving and entertaining, innovative and thoughtful. Here’s a look at my favourite films of 2014 that were actually released in US cinemas in 2014 or premiered in 2014 but have not been picked up for a US relase.
Shot over 12 years, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is an emotionally engaging epic about a boy and his family growing and evolving. It’s the rare film that captures how time sneaks up on you, how quickly things change, and how relationships shift. It is at once a reminder of your own childhood and a chronicle of parenthood, of two flawed people trying their best to help and shape their kids, making mistakes along the way. I fell in love with it at Sundance in January, and have seen it four more times since. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking.
Ava DuVernay’s moving “Selma,” which chronicles the lead-up to the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery that ultimately lead to disenfranchisement of Southern black voters, is an ensemble piece about a movement. It’s as interested in the humanity of Martin Luther King, Jr., in all of his flaws, as it is in the many people that worked with him along the way. It’s horrifying to see how poorly these peaceful protestors were treated back then, and it’s inspiring to watch this group persevere, maintain their dignity, and fight the good fight.
3. “National Gallery” (USA, 2014)
Frederick Wiseman’s latest three-hour documentary, “National Gallery,” takes us into London’s famed art institution as both visitor and observer. It poses the question, “is the National Gallery still relevant in modern life?” Over the course of three hours we watch the artwork get illuminated by various tour guides, reminding us of just how powerful some of these works are. But we also see the ways in which the museum fails to communicate with the broader public, and how even as they meticulously restore and light the paintings, the painting’s original context and thus impact can still get lost. The film is as close as you can get to visiting the gallery without going to London, but it also lets you look at the paintings and the institution in a way you never could as a mere visitor.
4. “Charlie’s Country” (Australia, 2014)
Rolf de Heer’s “Charlie’s Country,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is a harrowing look at the ways in which white privilege and colonialism continue to negatively affect the aboriginals in Australia. We follow Charlie (David Gulpilil), an elder in the community, who is struggling to survive. He doesn’t have enough money to eat well, so he tries to fashion himself weapons to hunt, only to have these confiscated by local law enforcement, because he doesn’t have a permit — and can’t afford one. The police are just following the law, doing their best, but it’s part of a long history of colonialism which has systematically disadvantaged the aboriginals. We watch Charlie persevere, destroying his life, trying to find his purpose again, and all the while caught between the white man’s world — there is medicine there that can help — and his culture. There’s a telling line when he visits the doctor who insists he speak English, unlike a foreigner, and Charlie explodes — in his mother tongue — about who the real foreigner and intruder is.
One of the most joyous films of the year, Matthew Warchus’s “Pride,” about how London Lesbian and Gay activists who joined forces to support the striking miners, is a call to action to those who may be sympathetic to another’s cause but don’t see how it directly affects them. Only through partnerships, even between unlikely allies, can oppression be fought. Warchus introduces us to a large ensemble cast — from Dominic West’s HIV positive gay man, to Ben Schnetzer’s idealistic organizer, to Imelda Staunton’s fiesty small-town leader — making their struggles our struggles, their triumphs ours, and bringing us into the world of both the miners and the gay and lesbians. When the next year, the miners show up by the busload to participate in the gay pride parade, you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved.
There have never been two vampires as hip, cool, and smart as Tom Hiddleston’s Adam and Tilda Swinton’s Eve, the titular lovers who have weathered the centuries together in Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive.” Although they couldn’t be more different, they share a passion for art, science, and beauty, and a similar cynicism about humanity. Jarmusch is playful with the conventions of the vampire genre, but the core of the film is in the pair’s connection, their intellectual discussions, and the ways in which they admire and absorb the music, objects, and culture around them.
In Swedish auteur Lukas Mooddysson’s adaptation of his wife’s graphic novel about growing up in Stockholm in the 1980s as a fan of punk, we meet three tweenage girls: bespectacled Boho, outspoken Klara, and the quiet and sage Hedwig. Together, they decide to start a punk band, even though Hedwig is the only one with any musical training, and punk is effectively dead. They’re full of spunk, opinions, a desire to defy gender expectations, and a deep love for each other even as they get into petty fights. This is adolescence as I remember it — a hilarious, fun, and sweet story of growing up.
8. “The Salt of the Earth” (Germany, 2014)
In “Salt of the Earth,” documentary filmmakers Wim Wenders (“Pina”) and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, document the amazing life and work of photographer Sebastian Salgado. After completing his PhD in economics, Salgado moved from his home in Brazil to England, where he ultimately decided to pursue photography full time. The film tells the story of Salgado’s extraordinary life, exploring his major works, including his series on Ethiopian poverty and aboriginals in South America. Salgado was a deeply empathic man, and he had a gift for transferring that empathy to his subjects: each of his photographs have such compassion and love in them. In the film, we get an inside look both at his work and what made Salgado the man capable of taking such remarkable photos.
Writer-director Justin Simien’s whip-smart “Dear White People” is a biting satire about racial tensions at an elite American college. By getting very specific about the black experience, Simien finds universal truths about the complexities of identity and the performance of identity. The film follows four protagonists — the local black activist Sam (Tessa Thompson in a star-making turn), the aspiring gay journalist Lionel (a sensitive Tyler James Williams) who doesn’t feel like he feel like he fits in with any of the groups to which he might belong, the student politician Troy (Brandon P. Bell) who may be living out his father’s dreams more than his own, and the spotlight-craving Coco (Teyonah Parris) — in the lead-up to the racist ‘black-themed’ party, which is more common on college campuses in this country than you might think. At times hilarious, moving, heartbreaking, and always thought-provoking, “Dear White People” is about so much more than race.
10. “Wild” (USA, 2014)
All outward journeys are inward journeys, and Jean Marc Vallée’s wonderful “Wild,” based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) about her thousand-mile solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, is no exception. After her mother (Laura Dern), with whom she had a very close relationship, died, Cheryl found herself in a downward spiral, repeatedly cheating on her husband and getting addicted to heroine. As a means of breaking out of this cycle, coping with the trauma of her mother’s death and her childhood — she had an abusive alcoholic father whom they left when she was young — and forcing herself to deal with herself, she sets out on this arduous journey. As she progresses on the trail, the memories slowly come back, first in short glimpses, and then in longer scenes, as she comes to terms with hardship, her mistakes, and the loss of her mother. It’s a film that’s wise about how we cope with trauma, how we face our problems, and the ways in which old trauma leaves its marks for years — Cheryl sees every man she encounters as a threat even though most of them are harmless and trying to help her. Nick Hornby’s screen adaptation captures the spirit and humour of Strayed’s wonderful book, and Witherspoon is captivating as a flawed woman trying to move forward.
Honourable mention: “The Good Lie,” “Keep on Keepin’ On,” “Inherent Vice, “Gone Girl,” “Force Majeure,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Beyond the Lights,” “Life Itself,” “Ernest and Célestine,” “Deux Jours, Une Nuit,” “Obvious Child,” “Citizenfour,” and “Snowpiercer.”
Best world premieres of 2014 that have not yet opened:
“Love at First Fight”
“Maps to the Stars”
Julie Taymor’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
“The New Girlfriend”
“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence”
“The Riot Club”
“We Come As Friends”
“What We Do In the Shadows”