As seems to be the usual case, many of my top 2014 theatrical releases were actually 2013 titles I caught on the festival circuit (nearly half of them, actually), a trend that will probably continue throughout the tradition of year end best lists. Still, they’re gems that surfaced through hundreds of less than satisfactory or better than average titles. Though only about a century old, the notion of what defines cinema continues to grow and expand, albeit not on such as scale as many would hope. Established auteurs like David Fincher, Bong Joon-Ho, and even the continually infamous Roman Polanski may all have premiered works reflecting their particular preferred conventions (add rising voice Adam Wingard to their ranks), yet, in intelligent, playful, and arresting ways. Meanwhile, others continue to recycle similar themes, a harder feat when taking into consideration their own body of work, yet the Dardennes continue to surprise.
Scoring higher and more enthusiastic marks from me are those films that continue to challenge notions of narrative cinema (though, generally, aren’t in any way peripheral to the zeitgeist). Inarritu is already being cited as overrated for his latest feat, Birdman, but its refreshing energy will outlive the moody backlash that forever accompanies the idiosyncratic voices that break out of the corral (as will Kent’s The Babadook). Same goes for Jonathan Glazer’s astounding third film, which frankly hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves. More subtle is Ava DuVernay’s ability to surprise with her fluid and incredibly resonant historical biopic Selma, a film that reflects a specific time and place yet corresponds powerfully with issues and emotions at the fore of our cultural context.
Several debuts (and sophomore efforts) make my list, such as Sundance winner Whiplash from Damien Chazelle, while other Sundance entries from Gillian Robespierre, Jennifer Kent, and Alex Ross Perry (technically with his third) arrive with fresh blood, each in different genres. Others on my list, like Jarmusch and Moodysson, rebound handsomely from the rather tepid (and not necessarily valid) responses their last features received. While some, like Denis Villeneuve and Serge Bozon, continue to hone their bizarre and exciting perspectives through personal projects that many would rather ignore than engage with.
Compared to 2013’s queer cinematic offerings, which had mighty releases like Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color in circulation, this year has seen less enthusiastically received titles. While Stranger By the Lake also played Cannes 2013, it finally reached theaters very early this year and without the pulse I was hoping it would strike in the US. It’s provocative, controversial and well deserving of continued debate. Queer underpinnings run throughout other titles on my list, like Starred Up and Obvious Child, but it’s Madeleine Olnek’s zany, unabashed lesbian prostitute film that’s as brazen in a unique way. And so naturally, I begin my countdown with…
#20. The Foxy Merkins
Receiving a limited theatrical run after its festival run, I hope Madeleine Olnek’s sophomore film is able to cultivate the cult audience it deserves. Few filmmakers are able to successfully create a distinctly unique universe of off-kilter comedy both consistent in tone and unwavering quality, especially if it also happens to be cobbled together from a mixture of limited resources. But you can add director Madeleine Olnek to a shortlist of such names with her sophomore film, The Foxy Merkins, an inspired ode to male-hustler buddy films from the vintage 1970s, transposed to modern day and removed from the arena of the heteronormative. Perhaps scrappy and episodic, which only adds to its infectious charm, this is an unfailingly funny film, proving Olnek to be a refreshing voice to behold in an era of repetitive storytelling and mediocre beats within the realm of independent film.
Filmmaker Damien Chazelle took Sundance by storm with this directorial debut, featuring a terrifying J.K. Simmons and a subtle Miles Teller, for once avoiding the snide caricature his more mainstream offerings have seemed to tailor. Obsessive, amusing, tense, and uncomfortable, Chazelle deservedly won Sundance with a film that marks the beginning of a great directorial career.
#18. Obvious Child
A star making turn from Jenny Slate (if you don’t know her, you won’t forget her after seeing her here) bats this unassuming indie film out of the park. Marketed as an abortion comedy, Obvious Child is a charming, effervescent joy in every frame. Gaby Hoffman and Jake Lacy provide their share of laughs (along with some actual chemistry, a rarity these days) but Slate’s infectious persona will have you wanting to get right back in line for another showing.
#17. The Babadook
The horror genre welcomed one of its most innovate entries in years with Jennifer Kent’s creepy debut, which gets most of its power from its mother/son central relationship, providing the film with the emotional core missing from most of the cookie cutter cash cows glutting the market. William Friedkin has come out to say it’s the most terrifying film he’s ever seen, and while many may balk at such a statement, it’s a film to be enjoyed beyond its perceived ability or inability to unnerve. Attracting the level of critical praise that also opens it up to an equal amount of backlash, whatever your fear factors, Kent has created a delightfully atmospheric film, and Essie Davis’ performance only grows more impressive with each viewing.
#16. The Guest
One can’t overlook the surprisingly enjoyable performance from a newly chiseled Dan Stevens, whose rather dowdy presence in Downton Abbey and Summer in February will have many barely recognizing the blond haired, blue eyed monster that dominates nearly every scene of The Guest. A handful of hysterically funny scenes punctuated with a few highly entertaining and very violent action sequences shows an unprecedented side of the performer. A penchant for comedic asides may cause fans of their previous works to favor something like You’re Next, but Wingard and Barrett deliver a fun, stylish, highly enjoyable throwback with their latest.
#15. Two Days, One Night
At the center of the Dardenne Brothers’ latest tale of working class hardship is a beautiful performance from Marion Cotillard. A title surprisingly ignored, perhaps due to its narrative similarities with several of the directors’ earlier, more celebrated titles, there’s a slightness in many ways, especially evident for those that tire of its ceasless course to one inevitable moment. Nevertheless, one is hard pressed to find a more moving portrayal than Cotillard’s, especially in comparison to the overblown campaigns afforded her English speaking counter parts in the awards season frenzy.
#14. Gone Girl
David Fincher’s mesmerizing exercise contends to examine the mechanisms that support the notion of coupledom and marriage, revealing the underbelly that lurks behind the personas we present to polite society when ripped apart by sensationalism, here in the arena of frenzied media. Part satire, mystery, thriller, and character study, it’s a potent mix of rhythms rather precisely patterned by Fincher.
Featuring a palatable Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton in one of her most gloriously odd incarnations, Bong Joon-Ho outdoes himself with his English language debut. Certainly, classism in a pre or post-apocalyptic context has been examined before (Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is an unworthy comparison that comes to mind), but Joon-ho’s hellish nightmare takes us past a certain breaking point for the struggle to survive, examining emotional plateaus absent from the platitudes of Biblical allegories where semantics drained potency long ago. It was the end of times, it was the worst of times, and one of the best of times you’ll have in the theater this year.
#12. Only Lovers Left Alive
Jarmusch does vampires, and that may not be to everyone’s liking. But one would be hard pressed to find one cooler than Tilda Swinton’s Eve. Unique, offbeat, and a lot of fun.
#11. Starred Up
Following in the wake of some of his best works, including 2005’s Asylum and 2009’s Perfect Sense, David Mackenzie put together one of the best prison dramas I’ve personally yet to see with Starred Up, starring a phenomenal Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn. Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is not the star-making vehicle worthy of O’Connell’s capabilities, but her film should pave some hindsight attention to this overlooked film.