Now that my annual countdown of favorite films of the year has been published, I should note two glaring omissions from the list. James Gray’s The Immigrant and Claude Lanzmann’s Last of the Unjust received their first Chicago runs this spring, but they both premiered at the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival, which makes them, per our rules, ineligible for inclusion this year. Nevertheless they towered over nearly everything else I saw in 2014.
Assembled in large part from footage Lanzmann shot in 1975 for Shoah, Unjust is a monumental achievement in its own right. The film asks us to think long and hard about Benjamin Murmelstein, the Viennese rabbi who assisted Adolf Eichmann in the deportation of Austria’s Jews and served as the last administrator of the Nazis’ “model ghetto” at Theresienstadt. A Jew forced to send other Jews to their deaths, Murmelstein is at once pitiable and monstrous. Lanzmann doesn’t resolve this contradiction—that would mean reducing the obscenity of the Holocaust to something comprehensible. Preserving the memory of the Holocaust, Lanzmann teaches us, means constantly reminding ourselves of the moral paralysis we experience when learning of it for the first time.
I included The Immigrant as a runner-up on last year’s list after having seen it only once, but subsequent viewings have convinced me I should have ranked it much higher. My colleague Ignatiy Vishnevetsky mentioned in conversation that a few months after seeing the movie he felt as though it had been with us for decades. (His essay on The Immigrant remains the best piece I’ve read on it.) Indeed Gray’s operatic style evokes an earlier era of filmmaking (if not precinematic narrative art), but more importantly his story of spiritual transformation within an impoverished ethnic ghetto speaks to some of the most elemental qualities of American life—our multicultural roots, our seemingly permanent crisis of urban poverty, and the longing for self-realization as the foundation of our national myth.
I suspect that Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (which premiered at the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival), Ira Sachs’s Love Is Strange, and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner might have wound up on my list of favorites if I’d managed to see them in time. In any case I saw so many superb movies in the last 12 months that I had a hard time limiting my list of favorites to just 30. Just missing the cut were: Sebastien Betbeder’s 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, Gyorgi Palfi’s Free Fall, Blake Eckard’s Ghosts of Empire Prairie, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy, Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, Salvatore Mereu’s Pretty Butterflies, Julie Bertuccelli’s School of Babel, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night, Darious Britt’s Unsound, Matias Piñeiro’s Viola, Francois Ozon’s Young and Beautiful, and Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation. I always end up saying that these films would have ranked higher in a lesser year, but as Richard Linklater reminded me this summer, there really are no lesser years in film history.
30. National Gallery Frederick Wiseman’s study of the National Gallery in London isn’t about art so much as the nature of perception. Which of the two radically different interpretations we hear of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors is “correct”? When Wiseman shows us the painstaking restorations of classic paintings, is he recording a communion between the past and present, a futile attempt to arrest the passage of time, or an act of creation in itself? As usual, America’s greatest documentarian offers no concrete answers, making us look harder at movies than we usually do and decide for ourselves.
29. Nymphomaniac Lars von Trier’s epic provocation seems to be modeled after an encyclopedia, with musings on science, religion, art, history, ethics, and even fly-fishing. (For all its graphic sex, I’ve yet to encounter anyone who finds the movie erotic.) Ultimately it’s a grand joke about humans’ efforts to impose order on a chaotic world—a closet romantic’s attack on our information-obsessed age.
28. Corner Stores This 25-minute documentary about a Palestinian emigre who operates a convenience store in Englewood manages to say a good deal about inner-city Chicago, which one interviewee compares to “a third-world situation in a first-world environment.” Director Amina Waheed illustrates this statement with sharp observational detail, though she counters the devastating societal portrait with moving scenes that show the conviviality between the emigre and his customers.
27. Gloria “This is a driven, indelible character—like the women Gena Rowlands played for John Cassavetes—and you fear her going over the edge not least because you suspect you’d follow her.” So wrote J.R. Jones of the title character of Sebastian Lelio’s surprising Chilean feature, which contains so many shifts in tone that it resists genre classification. The film is built around Paulina Garcia’s tremendous performance as a 60-something divorcee who’s desperate to recapture her youth. Neither condescending nor entirely sympathetic, this embraces life in all its wonderful messiness.
26. The Grand Budapest Hotel Beneath the brilliant storybook surfaces lies Wes Anderson’s most sobering film. This is a very personal consideration of Stefan Zweig, a beloved Jewish-Austrian writer who committed suicide in 1942 after he managed to find asylum in Brazil. (J. Hoberman has suggested that the David Niven-esque sophisticate played by Ralph Fiennes is a Jew passing as a gentile, which would add even greater poignancy to this symbol of 19th-century cultural refinement that was effectively laid to waste by the World Wars.) The Russian-doll narrative structure likely derives from one of Zweig’s last novellas, The Royal Game (also known as “Chess Story”), and like that work, the film communicates a joy of storytelling while acknowledging the real-life horrors from which fiction offers an escape.
25. Exhibition It took me a few viewings of this quietly unnerving British art film before I could start to get a handle on what writer-director Joanna Hogg was up to, and even now I’m not entirely sure. It’s never clear whether the artist couple (played by musician Viv Albertine and real-life artist Liam Gillick) are undergoing a crisis or whether they’ve always been passive-aggressive kooks. The rigorous framing and sound design might recall a good number of European art filmmakers, but Hogg uses them to puzzling ends that are distinctly her own, presenting human beings as though they were an alien race.
24. Words and Pictures and 23. Non-Stop These deeply satisfying genre pictures suggest that old-school Hollywood craftsmanship is alive and well—though, ironically, they were directed by an Australian (Fred Schepisi) and a Spaniard (Jaume Collet-Serra) respectively. In addition to being a terrific star vehicle for Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen (who invoke Hepburn and Tracy in their comic sparring), Words and Pictures features some of the finest dialogue of the year. “In the film [prep school teachers] Owen and Binoche come to lead their students in an ongoing debate over the cultural merits of literature versus visual art,” I wrote over the summer. “That’s a stupid argument, of course, though it provides a worthy prompt for both teachers and students to consider how they engage with the world.” Non-Stop is a rousing tribute to the joys of filmmaking and film viewing, filled with elaborate camerawork and knowingly ludicrous plot twists that could happen only in the movies.
22. Timbuktu Since the death of Ousmane Sembene, Abderrahamane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness, Bamako) is arguably the most important working African filmmaker, which made the release of his first feature in eight years (which received its local premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival) a major event. This depicts the occupation of a Malian village by Islamic terrorists, yet Sissako’s approach is astonishingly humane. (Moreover his calm, wide-eyed perspective, which invokes folklore, makes the regional conflict feel universal.) “My goal was not to show [terrorists] in a positive light, but rather show that they are not so different from us,” the director said recently in Variety interview. “At one point in their lives they were certainly good people, or at least people we can relate to. . . . If you don’t give them a part of humanity you lose some of it yourself.”
21. Beyond the Lights Speaking of satisfying, old-school Hollywood storytelling, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s romantic melodrama is a genuine crowd-pleaser. It’s also, as I noted last month, the most subversive American movie of the year. Prince-Bythewood uses melodramatic conventions purposely, as a way to drive home a sharp critique of contemporary media culture.
20. Listen Up, Philip Tragedy staged as comedy, Alex Ross Perry’s follow-up to The Color Wheel chronicles a talented young author’s descent into self-imposed isolation, lashing out at everyone around him and becoming (to paraphrase Eric Bogosian’s omniscient narrator) a stranger to himself. Perry’s gambit here is to have his actors deliver the spiky dialogue as though they’re telling jokes, and since he’s becoming so good at directing actors he succeeds in creating something that’s hilarious and devastating at the same time. Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, and Krysten Ritter haven’t been better, and Jonathan Pryce kills it as the antihero’s antiguru. This was inspired by Philip Roth’s first Zuckerman trilogy, and it comes closer than any other movie to re-creating what it’s like to read Roth.
19. The Homesman Tommy Lee Jones’s second theatrical film as director—an eccentric and angry tale of abject failure on the American frontier—confirms the promise of his first, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005). I hope we don’t have to wait another decade before he directs again.
18. The Stuart Hall Project Ghanaian-born British film essayist John Akomfrah pays tribute to the Jamaican-born academic Stuart Hall, who was instrumental in creating the concepts of cultural studies and multiculturalism. It’s remarkably sensual for a movie about ideas—Akomfrah gracefully shifts focus from the personal to the political and back again, using downtempo tracks by Miles Davis to enhance the dreamy mood.
17. The Amazing Catfish I’ve covered the Chicago Latino Film Festival for several years now, and this year’s lineup was by far the strongest I’ve encountered. That speaks as much to the vital state of Latin and South American cinema as it does to the festival’s programming. Case in point: Claudia Sainte-Luce’s debut feature (the finest Mexican film I saw all year) begins with a shopworn melodramatic premise—a dying mother and her children trying to make the best of their time together—and manages to create something spontaneous, unsentimental, and funny.
16. President This year Chicagoans got to see not one, but two fine new movies by the exiled Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In the spring his subtly self-reflexive documentary The Gardener (2012) played for a week at the Siskel Center, and in October the Chicago International Film Festival presented the local premiere of this ravishing poetic nightmare, his best narrative feature in years. It follows a deposed dictator in an unnamed country as he tries to flee for the border with his five-year-old grandson. As the two trek from capital city to the indigent outskirts, the tyrant sees up front the devastation he’s wreaked on his country. Yet this summary fails to do justice to the film’s uncanny tone, which invokes the grandson’s bewildered perception of the madness around him, or the rich (and even funny) imagery that Makhmalbaf creates.
15. Camille Claudel 1915 and 14. Clouds of Sils Maria These films find two of the best working French filmmakers at the height of their powers. Juliette Binoche stars in both, playing on her celebrity to different effect in each. In Camille, Bruno Dumont (who almost never works with professional actors) casts Binoche as the schizophrenic French sculptor who languished in a mental institution for the last three decades of her life. The film focuses almost exclusively on Claudel’s institutionalization—to emphasize the obscenity of her confinement, Dumont cast profoundly developmentally disabled women as her fellow patients. Claudel’s challenge to preserve her dignity in the total absence of intellectual stimulation is mirrored in Binoche’s challenge to stay in character. As usual, Dumont grazes the awful in his pursuit of the sublime, making it seem all the more remarkable when he reaches it. Sils Maria marks Olivier Assayas’s return to the filmmaking-as-film-criticism genre of Irma Vep and Demonlover. Like those movies, it reflects on the state of cinema to consider the state of the world, and vice versa. Binoche plays a famous actress much like herself who reevaluates her life when she’s cast in a new production of a play that launched her career three decades earlier. This looks back to André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (1985)—which Binoche acted in and Assayas cowrote—as it ponders the future of high art in a pop-dominated culture. There’s even more going on in the movie than that (for one thing, I haven’t touched on the complicated, Bergmanesque relationship between Binoche and the personal assistant played by Kristen Stewart). I’m eager to continue unpacking the film when it returns to Chicago next year.
13. Level Five Chris Marker’s 1997 fiction-documentary hybrid (one of the key works of this major filmmaker’s late period) finally got distributed in the U.S. this year. A fictional computer programmer tries to design an interactive online game in which players “re-create” the Battle of Okinawa by retrieving historical materials from a decentralized virtual library, then ordering events down to the last detail. As she discovers more and more details of the atrocities that accompanied the battle, she tries to rewrite the course of history, only to find that the program has acquired a will of its own. The movie is prescient in its musings on how the Internet effects the way we think, and Marker’s free-associative editing still feels fresh.
12. The Golden Era Ann Hui, Hong Kong’s most important female filmmaker, contemplates another groundbreaking female artist: mainland Chinese author Xiao Hong (1911-1942). At three hours, the movie is structured like an epic, covering roughly half of Xiao’s life and getting into detail about China’s modernist literary scene and prewar Communist movement. And while it offers a complex history lesson, The Golden Era feels like few other movie epics. Hui conjures a sense of quiet intimacy with her subjects, presenting history as these introspective (and often self-contradicting) people might have experienced it. This received virtually no press when it played for a week at the Showplace Icon two months ago. Thankfully the Siskel Center is bringing it back this coming week for four shows.
11. Only Lovers Left Alive “Jim Jarmusch is one of the only contemporary American filmmakers of consistent and distinguished achievement who has dared to say a resounding No! to contemporary America,” wrote Robin Wood in the 2003 edition of Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan, noting that Jarmusch’s America is “a barren world, a world without a past, without traditions, without a cultural history; [his characters] come from nowhere and have nowhere to go.” One thing that makes Jarmusch’s take on the vampire movie so poignant is that, for once, his characters are steeped in cultural history—several centuries of it, in fact—but it doesn’t seem to help them at all. The undead companions played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are, ironically, the only truly life-loving characters we see in this preapocaylptic vision of postindustrial America. The preeminent poet of U.S. independent cinema may be growing more pessimistic with age, but as Only Lovers shows, his wit and his affection for misfits remain strong.