This post was delayed somewhat due to “The Great Checkerboard Hiatus of 2014!” but that’s only given me more time to think about all the movies I loved from last year!
I’ll try to limit my usual overlong preamble this year and cut right to the chase. As always, these are only my “favorites” and not me claiming this or that movie is the best. For whatever reason these ten movies made an impact on me last year and were the ones I found myself still thinking about days, weeks and sometimes months afterwards.
#10: SPRING BREAKERS
SPRING BREAKERS was a controversial movie disliked by many. Most of my friends either rolled their eyes or gave us concerned looks after hearing we’d seen it. Apparently this movie currently has hundreds of one star reviews on Amazon.com with a record amount of comments complaining that there’s no option to rate it zero stars. This should give you an idea of how this movie was received in some circles. But for all its opposition there are lots of people out there who consider it a kind of bleak masterpiece. I fall somewhere in between. The theater we saw it in was full of squirrely teenagers who were there to fulfill some kind of lustful tabloid obsession or to see boobs, or both. I won’t call SPRING BREAKERS a masterpiece but I won’t call it trash either – it was … something. Actually, it was everything everyone who hates it accuses it of being – but in all the right ways. It was an indictment of the empty excessiveness of youth culture. It was a vivid and terrifying portrait of bored teenagers pursuing pleasure into a moral vacuum. It was a movie that opens with colors and lights and bouncing breasts on a beach and ends by scratching away the superficial husk of gossip magazine beauty, the dangers of peer pressure, and the love of guns and violence.
#9: MOOD INDIGO
One of the first movies we watched in Hong Kong was Michel Gondry’s MOOD INDIGO. Starring Romain Duris and AMELIE’s Audrey Tautou, INDIGO is a french love story based on Boris Vian’s 1947 novel “Froth on the Daydream”. As big fans of Michel Gondry we weren’t sure what to expect. Gondry is a great director who, hit or miss, always delivers a visually creative experience. Whatever we were expecting, we were not ready for the surreal heartbreaking journey that was waiting for us. INDIGO starts with an overtly wacky whimsical tone and descends slowly into an emotional nightmare. The performances, set decoration, camerawork and colour palette of the movie all follow in service of the characters’ decline. With gradual (almost imperceptible) changes the movie transforms itself from a colorful wild joyfulness into a dreary grey despair in just two short hours. The ending of this movie is so sad and so bleak that Ali and I felt almost guilty walking back into the sunlight of the real world. A haunting story about love and marriage and the tragedy of life, this movie is great but not for the faint of heart. Hug your loved ones people.
#8: THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN
This was the last movie Ali and I saw before our daughter was born. We didn’t know anything about it other than that it had been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Made in Belgium, THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN is a simple story about a bluegrass musician and his wife. They meet at the tattoo parlor where she works, they fall in love, she joins his band, and they have a daughter. BREAKDOWN plays like a novel with the narrative jumping around divorced from any chronological order. It was clear from the opening scene that we were in for a heart breaker. But BREAKDOWN was more than just some relentless downer, it had that kind of surprising beauty that real life has. It never wallows in sadness even in its bleakest moments. In one amazing unforgettable scene near the end of the film everything stops and a character stands out in front of a stunned audience to rant a scathing indictment against God, religion and pie-in-the-sky idealism. The moment was so powerful that my own faith quaked in its boots.
#7: FRANCES HA
Co-written by Greta Gerwig, the star and heartbeat of the movie, FRANCES HA was one of the funniest movies I saw last year. It was the kind of funny that was so painfully awkward at times that it was difficult to watch. Telling a story that’s been told a million times before, FRANCES HA manages to be completely fresh. It maneuvers through the usual plot points with a briskness and humor that Gerwig pulls off effortlessly. The story is familiar: A twenty something woman who fails more than she succeeds and who rides the waves of life with seemingly no control over her future or her potential is forced to grow up and take hold of her life. But Gerwig is so magical and so real the whole time that the movie always feels honest. Director Noah Baumbach (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE) achieves an emotional beat in the last scene of the movie so powerful and genuine that I was choked up with tears the whole way home. If there’s a bandwagon out there for Gerwig’s Best Actress Oscar, I’m on it. (Like a lot of the best performances of the year, Greta Gerwig was snubbed by the Academy Awards. Alas.)
PHILOMENA tells the true story of Philomena Lee who, as a pregnant teenager, was shipped off to live with nuns. The nuns, for their own spiritual and financial reasons, took her baby away and gave it up for adoption without her consent. 50 years later, with the help of a bitter journalist (Steve Coogan), she sets out to find out what happened to her son. In the hands of some filmmakers that premise could easily have been reduced to one of the schmaltzy paint-by-numbers tear-jerkers that you find on Sunday afternoon television. Instead director Stephen Frears and screenwriter/star Steve Coogan create an extremely interesting road trip/detective movie that dissects a complex issue with tenderness, compassion and humor. When Philomena, played by the always great Judy Dench, finally finds out the truth about her son and comes face to face with the person who destroyed her life the movie doesn’t provide any easy answers. Forgiveness is hard. Sometimes forgiveness is impossible.
#5: BEFORE MIDNIGHT
For twenty years Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have been telling one really long story about what a real relationship can look like. What I love most about the BEFORE movies is that they escape most of the typical Hollywood clichés. There is no implication in these movies that once Guy and Girl walk off into the sunset (or into bed) “true love” will just go on being “true love” all their lives. Instead, the BEFORE series grounds itself firmly in life’s complicated realities. Admittedly these movies are pretty romantic. Each movie takes place within a single day in idyllic Europe with characters walking around aimlessly, drinking wine and eating delicious food – but the characters’ choices matter and the things they do have consequences. At the end of the second film, BEFORE SUNSET, Jessie and Celine decide to be together, even though Jessie is married to someone else and has a son. This choice reverberates into BEFORE MIDNIGHT, set a decade later, where Jessie and Celine are now married with kids of their own. Their choices from the previous films become the cracks that grow and eventually break into the prime conflict of the film. Linklater, Hawke and Delpy present our protagonists in a real marriage with real problems that are hard to solve. This is unusual in a Hollywood movie where love and sex are typically the answers to everything. Instead Linklater forces his characters to live in a real world where love needs to be built every day with action and communication and where unfaithfulness, distrust or miscommunication can break things apart in ways that can’t be fixed.
#4: THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
Have I mentioned how much I love Ryan Gosling? With very few exceptions he has established a great track record of picking terrific roles doing really good work in them. He’s also damn good looking and charming and Canadian and we kind of view him as a bit of a national treasure. PINES made me love him even more. It was just my kind of movie. It is structured strangely and in a way that feels more like a novel than a film and this structure lends a real weight to the narrative. Director Derek Cianfrance watches his characters make destructive choices and then sticks around to see how those choices reverberate throughout history. PINES is a story about fathers and sons – and stories like that always get me. It is a movie about family, and how we inherit the past even if we don’t know it. The movie is filled with a stellar cast and it features some of my favorite moments of the year. I was lucky that it came out in Hong Kong a few weeks after we arrived and so I was able to see it again for the second time!
GRAVITY opens with an incredible 17 minute unbroken shot – immediately establishing that we’re in for a new kind of immersive cinematic experience. Beautifully shot by long-time Cuarón cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who finally and deservedly won the Academy Award, GRAVITY displays some of the most awesome visual effects I’ve ever seen. More than once during the movie I was literally holding my breath. The weak point in GRAVITY is the script which at times was a little too on-the-nose for me. For a movie that used silence so effectively, GRAVITY relies a lot on the sledge hammer of dialogue when the gentleness of performance would do. I wish it could have had the guts to really go all the way and strip out all the unnecessary exposition. When the movie finally ended I breathed a huge sigh of relief. GRAVITY is an enormous achievement and a bar setting, groundbreaking visual spectacle. I don’t know what Alfonso Cuarón will do next – or how long I’ll have to wait to see it – but whatever it is I’ll be first in line.
#2: BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
Director Abdellatif Kechiche strips BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR of all glamor and presents the story and characters in the most natural way possible. I didn’t agree with all of his choices and in a movie shorn of artifice I thought an eight minute sex scene was distracting, gratuitous and unnecessary. The story is simple and powerful and it resonated with us long after the credits rolled. BLUE is three hours long but it never felt it. It perfectly captures both the wide-eyed naivety of love and the heartbreak of separation. We can all relate to how it feels to love someone who doesn’t want us. We can all relate to how it feels to make a mistake that we’re unable to undo. We have all been desperate for forgiveness that doesn’t come. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR is a simple story but its impact is deep and true. I won’t forget it.
#1: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Each frame of 12 YEARS A SLAVE feels thoughtful, deliberate and hard-earned. The movie feels personal. You get the sense that everyone involved cares more about being faithful to Solomon Northup’s story than to guiding the emotional reactions of an audience. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance, in particular, is deeply affecting. There is a moment near the end of the film where he is standing with a group of slaves singing Roll Jordan Roll. Northup has spent the whole movie resisting slavery but now it has overcome him. He has finally been broken and his hope of freedom is gone. He tries to join in the singing but he falters. His voice is nothing more than a mumble until slowly it grows and grows into a roar of defiance. It is a perfect example of everything that I loved about the movie. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is heartbreaking but it also remains a steadfast champion of hope. It provides no easy answers but stands instead as an unflinching witness to injustice and cruelty. With elegance and courage it shows us our history and refuses to look away.