What you see is what you get, so the saying goes, and that sentiment certainly applies to this year’s list of the 10 best films. Every year, compiling such a list frustrates and bedevils me to no end. How am I to whittle my way through the year’s best films when so many of the titles that appear on the lists of critics across the country (and globe) rarely if ever make it to the Midwest (see several titles on the following list) or arrive well into the next year (Selma, American Sniper)? Even as I complain and shake my fist at the heavens, I know that the true purpose of my list is to remind you, dear CityBeat readers, of the best titles that have been available to us.
We get a welcome boost when I’m able to either attend an extra international film festival (in Munich, our esteemed big Sister City no less) or when I stumble across titles on streaming and/or video on-demand services like MUBI, Netflix or Time Warner Cable. The overall goal of such list making remains the same though: to identify the titles that stirred my critical and creative soul and share them with you.
- Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Shortlisted for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, Russia’s entry is a truly Biblical tale, Old Testament, in fact, in ways far superior to either Darren Aronofsky’s bleakly artful retelling of the flood (Noah) or Ridley Scott’s computer-generated rendering of the power struggle between Moses and Ramses (Exodus: Gods and Kings). Every other critic out there will tell you Leviathan documents the abuses of an oppressive state, but I’m here to say they are wrong, dead wrong. This story is all about an angry god turning his back on humanity to prove a point only the omniscient can understand.
- Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
The film feels like a festival title, primarily because I saw it during my sojourn to the Munich Film Festival, but it was not part of my festival schedule. Linklater’s film was merely playing as part of its theatrical release in Europe and I jumped off the festival hamster wheel for what felt like an exclusive ride with an audience of film lovers totally in step with this wonderfully intimate little gem, a collection of small moments writ large over the course of 12 years.
- Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
At every turn, the dazzlingly deceptive show of shooting a film as if it were one long, continuous take threatens to distract and confound, but Michael Keaton — as a former franchise player seeking to reinvent himself through a last gasp gamble on Broadway — squeezes us closer and closer, damn near stuffing us inside his scattered brain, while he stands on the ledge with one foot dangling over the side.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
I’m about to damn this film with faint praise, but Anderson’s playfully comic gem was the best film from the first half of 2014. I couldn’t imagine anything else coming close to its inspired frenzy, its pinpoint wit or its glorious performances — starting and ending with a sorely under-appreciated Ralph Fiennes. Anderson’s last three releases (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest) show his increasing capacity to deliver human foibles worthy of more than artful respect.
- Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
I’ve never been an adherent to conspiracy theories of any type, but I walked away from this documentary with the sense that the capacity to collect data and the willingness to exploit said data is hard-wired in the psyches of governments and big business, and the inevitable merger between the two will result in the complete surrender of privacy.
- Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich)
One of two films on this list I caught at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (see Ida below), I was over the moon when this tale about cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s quixotic attempt to bring Dune to life reached area screens. As a devoted fan of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel and a lover of ambitious film adaptations, I find myself thanking Pavich every time I see this documentary for allowing us to dream this crazy dream (starring Jodorowsky’s son Brontis, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles with music by Pink Floyd — come on!) that never came to be.
- Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
The stark and haunting story of a young initiate (Agata Trzebuchowska) into the Catholic sisterhood in 1960s Poland who, just before taking her vows, discovers that she’s Jewish and is compelled to seek out the surviving family member (Agata Kulesza) who can help her make sense of her spiritual and familial identity. This one gets richer with repeat viewings.
- Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
There is a harsh toll in the curse of eternal life that we rarely get to truly feel in the glossy stories of romantic bloodsuckers with glistening teeth and superhuman strength, but Jarmusch, along with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, reminds us of the humanity (and the human longing) of the undead. We never knew love like this before.
- Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund)
Often, a film like Gone Girl comes along and we are directed toward a safe and titillating conversation point. What we need more of, though, are films like Force Majeure — about a vacationing family’s shaken sensibilities when the father, in a moment of perceived crisis, abandons his brood only to return and act as if nothing happened once the threat has passed — that compel us into internal debates.
- Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
The two worst words in the human language — “nice job” — will never be applied to this film, its writer-director or its leads (Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons). Whiplash shows us that the job of doing something right is never enough, or truly done. Genius demands supreme effort and anything less is failure. (tt stern-enzi)