I occasionally participate in the weekly critic’s survey over at IndieWire.com. If you aren’t familiar, it’s an informal feature that poses a single question for dozens of film critics and collects the responses in a single post. One of the recent queries, handed down by editor Sam Adams, asked ““What’s your process for making a Top 10?”, meaning a list of the ten best films of the year. This was my answer:
I try not to think too hard. Year end lists are fun to read and fun to make, but their significance is way, way overvalued. And they’re really not that different, list to list. We’re all basically picking from the same pool of 50 to 75 films, so what’s included and the order in which they’re arranged is pretty arbitrary. But like I said, they’re fun. I simply pick the ten films that most moved me during the year, then order them based on preference, though that’s a fluid situation—ask me in a week, and I might swap #2 for #4 or #1 for #9. The point is I liked them. I don’t bother with keeping a running list—again, it’s important not to think too hard—and I rarely feel the need to play catch-up or cram anything in last minute, because if I consider something worth watching, chances are I’ve seen it already, and even if I miss something, it’ll surely be on another critic’s list, so problem solved! The one “rule” I do follow is the one-week, NYC theatrical policy. I don’t include festival films or films without distribution. Just seems more fair that way.
Maybe there was a time when drafting end-of-year lists was a more noble pursuit, but not anymore. They’re far more homogenous than I think people realize, and they promote the sort of herd mentality and insistence on consensus that hurts cultural discussion. And yet each year I feel compelled to read them, and, obviously, compile my own. I try my best to look at the year in film with as wide a lens as possible, meaning I try to identify certain trends within cinema as a whole rather than single out individual films. One thing about cinema in 2014 that really excited me: American independent filmmaking. I think the days of “mumblecore” are behind us, and thank Christ. There are daring new voices to be found, and directors that place an emphasis on image creation rather than merely creative images. Some of them are represented below, in my list of the 25 best films of 2014, alongside established masters who offer the young upstarts a guiding light.
A quick note about my list: we at the Reader don’t make exceptions for festival films or films without distribution—if it played in Chicago this year, it’s up for grabs, which also means my very favorite theatrical release of the year, The Immigrant, is ineligible here because it premiered at the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival. Same goes for some other masterpieces that hit the Chicago festival scene prior to theatrical release, including Stray Dogs (dir. Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan) and Stranger by the Lake.
Also, like most of Chicago, I haven’t seen Goodbye to Language 3-D. If I had, I feel pretty confident that it would be represented here. And Inherent Vice doesn’t hit Chicago theaters for a few more weeks, but rest assured that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is yet another triumph.
The top ten, ranked loosely in order of preference:
1. Buzzard (dir. Joel Potrykus, USA) This demented character study played the Chicago International Film Festival, but its decidedly off-kilter sensibilities better fit the eccentric fare seen in the Chicago Underground Film Festival, where Potrykus’s last film, Ape, was an audience hit. Prepare yourself for this one when it hits theaters March 6.
2. Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras, USA) The year’s most heart-stopping film offers a fly-on-the-wall glimpse into one of the most important moments of the 21st century. If you’re not shaken by what you see here, you’re not watching close enough. And to the NSA employee who started monitoring my laptop the second I finished typing “Citizenfour“: ‘Sup, bro?
3. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (dir. Denis Côté, Canada) Côté makes twisted little fables about working-class weirdos and their fight against the encroaching tide of regret. This one is particularly beautiful.
4. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (dir. Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, France/Estonia/Germany) Leading experimental filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell team up for a film that honors the personality of both and the singularity of collaboration. Told in three parts, it’s a testament to human mutability.
5. See You Next Tuesday (dir. Drew Tobia, USA) Like I said above, American independent filmmaking is a lot of fun right now, and this caustic comedy stands as proof. Directing his first feature, Drew Tobia completely ignores the line between brilliant and appalling.
6. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher, USA) A great satire of pop narratives and domesticity. Fincher’s films are structured like meticulous to-do lists laid out on a grid, which perfectly explains his fascination with Gillian Flynn’s airport paperback and the grand scheme therein.
7. Jealousy (dir. Philippe Garrel, France) I’ve yet to see a Garrel film I don’t love. His intensely personal style is marked by intimate photography and subtle formal tics. His latest might be the best in a great stretch that includes the also great A Burning Hot Summer.
8. Memphis (dir. Tim Sutton), USA) The second feature by Tim Sutton, whose impressionistic debut Pavilion is one of the best film I’ve ever seen about being young.
9. What Now? Remind Me (dir. Joaquim Pinto, Portugal) The most vibrant personal essay I saw all year. The immediacy of Pinto’s filmmaking is staggering.
10. Closed Curtain (dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran) I’m really, really glad Jafar Panahi is still making movies.
Here are 15 more films that also stuck with me, for one reason or another, presented alphabetically:
Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater, USA)
Enemy (dir. Denis Villeneuve, Canada)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson, USA)
Happy Christmas (dir. Joe Swanberg, USA)
The Homesman (dir. Tommy Lee Jones, USA)
It Felt Like Love (dir. Eliza Hittman, USA)
Night Moves (dir. Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Palo Alto (dir. Gia Coppola, USA)
They Came Together (dir. David Wain, USA)
22 Jump Street (dir. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, USA)
Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, UK)
We Are the Best! (dir. Lukas Moodysson, Sweden)
Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle, USA)
Winter Sleep (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)