THE TOP 10 DRAMATIC FEATURES OF 2014
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, both a fictional drama about growing up and a wonder-rousing cinema experiment, deserves all the accolades it has been receiving. Presented in 143 scenes shot in 39 days over a dozen years with the same cast, the film explores that permeable border between drama and documentary in a way that evokes recognition, melancholy and joy, while sticking to the mundane experiences of one boy’s life.
Winter Sleep (Jan. 9)
This brooding Turkish drama by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, is about a retired actor managing a rural hotel, and his failing marriage to a younger woman. A richly humane study of self-deceit and the struggle to communicate, Winter Sleep belongs to the dramatic tradition of Chekhov, Ibsen and Ingmar Bergman.
The third feature from Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) tells the story of the murder of an Olympic wrestler at the hands of his rich patron. At the film’s heart are three unforgettable performances: Channing Tatum as the physically powerful but emotionally vulnerable Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz; Mark Ruffalo as his shrewd, modest, older brother, Dave; and an unrecognizable Steve Carell as John du Pont, a crazy heir to the du Pont chemical fortune.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s eighth feature offers the usual pop-up-book visuals and precision-timed deadpan humour, but there’s a quality of both melancholy and grimness underlying this fanciful tale (set in a fictional Central European country in 1932) about a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) and a flamboyant concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the martinet of the gaudy, pink-wedding-cake of an alpine spa-hotel that gives the movie its title. At its core is the thinly disguised story of the destruction of old Europe and the rise of the Nazi regime, inspired by the writings of Mitteleuropean cultural chronicler Stefan Zweig.
Leviathan (Jan. 23)
Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a symphony of black comedy and tragedy, set in a stunningly shot Arctic fishing village in northwestern Russia. The fourth feature from the 50-year-old Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena) is a retelling of the story of Job, filtered through the pessimism of Thomas Hobbes, as a bleak state-of-the-nation report on contemporary Russia. The film follows the fate of Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), a middle-aged auto-repair-shop owner who lives in the village with his young wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova). The village mayor, Vadim, an obese, hard-drinking buffoon, wants to expropriate Kolya’s property for a development, and will use any method – legal or not – to get what he wants.
Mr. Turner (Dec. 25)
The later works of the Romantic English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, with their atmospheric washes of colour that verged on passionate abstraction, have been called “fantastic puzzles,” though his life, as an eccentric, reclusive wig-maker’s son, is usually considered unremarkable. Filmmaker Mike Leigh, best known for his caustic portrayals of contemporary British life, explores the link between the grotesque and the sublime in this portrait that goes beyond warts and all – including phlegm, rashes, servant-molesting and a good deal of grunting on the part of star Timothy Spall, in a career performance.
In South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut, everyone left alive is on a train circling the ice-covered globe, with the rich people at the front and the poor in the caboose, living on protein bars made from insects. Then the revolution starts. An allegory, a black comedy and a dazzling demonstration of production design (each railway car is almost a different world), Snowpiercer is the most entertaining and politically charged action film of the year.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Director Jim Jarmusch’s take on the vampire genre is his best film since his 1995 western Dead Man, and another idiosyncratic story of a precarious journey. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play Eve and Adam, vampire lovers who buy their blood – “the good stuff” – from black-market medical labs, live like bohemians in Detroit and Tangier, and shake their heads regretfully at the havoc the “zombies” (mortals like you and me) have wreaked on the planet. Elegant, melancholic and lightly humorous, Only Lovers serves as a manifesto of the director’s cultural touchstones and, as usual, his eclectic musical taste.
British-based, Polish-born Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, a black-and-white film set in 1961, is the tale of a young Catholic nun who discovers, on the verge of committing to convent life, that she is Jewish and that her parents were killed in the war. She goes on a journey with her middle-aged aunt (stage actress Agata Kulesza) to discover their unmarked graves. The younger woman discovers her unknown history, while the elder, a party official, is forced to face the past again. Wonderfully concise (it runs 80 minutes), Ida explores the tangle of historical abuse without pretending to offer redemption or answers.
This fiendishly precise and funny black comedy about bourgeois life and gender roles from Swedish director Ruben Ostlund pivots on a fateful moment at lunchtime at an outdoor restaurant terrace at a French Alps ski resort when a catalogue-attractive Swedish family is terrified by a controlled avalanche. Instead of protecting his wife and two children, the husband grabs his cellphone and runs for cover. Like Humpty Dumpty’s crash landing, nothing can put the pieces together again.
THE TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARIES OF 2014
Laura Poitras’s documentary allows us to experience the Edward Snowden leaks in real time, and offers a chilling portrait of the encroachments on privacy in the United States and around the world.
America’s great chronicler of institutions, Frederick Wiseman, turns his camera on Britain’s famous art museum, the layers of meaning in a painting and the role of money in culture.
Director Frank Pavich tells a great story about the attempts of shamanistic Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unsuccessful attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction novel, which he hadn’t read. Jodorowsky, vital in his mid-80s, is a great subject, and the film asks an intriguing question: What if Dune, rather than Star Wars, had been the sci-fi film to change the course of movie history?
Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann’s documentary Altman, an affectionate, moving portrait of the iconoclastic director of such era-defining movies as M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, California Split and Nashville, leads you from Altman’s life back to his films, and makes you want to see them anew.
This unexpectedly gripping story of the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland will leave you sweating, along with a half-dozen scientists, about the mass of the Higgs particle the scientists have dislodged from smashing protons together. The stakes are as high as can be: Do we live in a universe of “beauty and simplicity and order and deeper and deeper insights”? Or a “multiverse” of chaos, where we are a minuscule part of an existence that is “mostly lethal”? No spoilers, but the results surprise even the scientists.
TOP FIVE OMISSIONS
Omission No. 1: The business called show. Any summary of the film year 2014 should probably include a rumination on the poor summer box office or the implications of the Sony computer-hacking attack, but does anyone really care? Hollywood will continue to spend hundreds of millions on comic-book movies in the hopes of making billions in global grosses, until that approach fails. And the free-speech-hindering, criminal Sony cyberattacks, while embarrassing to the people involved, revealed only that studio executives produce movies they know aren’t good by people they don’t respect and say stupid things in e-mails. No surprise twists there.
Omission No. 2: Predictions for the future. We all know which direction things are going in the movie business, just not exactly where they’ll arrive. The gaps between cable television, streaming services like Netflix and video-on-demand is continuing to fill in. Perhaps in five years time we’ll all be watching Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the next Avatar sequel simultaneously on our Google Glasses while riding in our personal hovercrafts. Moviegoing and movie criticism have changed with the Internet and social media, but so have working, dating, dining, travelling, learning, reading and talking to your family. Yet for some reason, millions of people around the world continue to enjoy sitting in theatres watching movies together in the dark.
Omission No. 3: Hollywood blockbusters. There were 477 movies released in theatres in Toronto in the past year and perhaps a third were entertaining Hollywood-produced movies: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Lego Movie, Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy and Nightcrawler come to mind. My criterion is movies that by style, concept and execution were out of the ordinary and worthy of continuing consideration, and, mostly, because I preferred them.
Omission No. 4: Canadian dramatic films. This year a record three Canadian films were in competition at the world’s most prestigious film festival in Cannes: Atom Egoyan’s The Captive, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, but I had reservations about each of them. Among other Canadian films, I found Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy smart and playful, was moved by Jean-Marc Vallée’s impressionistic road journey, Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, and was charmed to bits by Stéphane Lafleur’s black-and-white coming-of-age drama, Tu dors Nicole.
Omission No. 5: Three acclaimed films of 2014 that I didn’t really get.
1. Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D: You can make a case for the 84-year-old Godard’s audacity in playing with the 3-D frame in fresh ways (I enjoyed David Bordwell’s essay on Goodbye to Language more than the actual film), but I can’t take Godard as seriously as a thinker, even though the political-historical quotations spill out like Bartlett’s put through a wood chipper. Not everything that’s superficially impenetrable turns out to be James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
2. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin: Scarlett Johansson plays a sexy alien predator who drives around Scotland picking up hitchhikers (non-actors who later agreed to be in the film) and takes them to empty houses and turns them into pulp. Glazer is much better at creating atmosphere than articulating ideas.
3. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice: Anderson’s seventh film, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 funky detective novel, is absurdist but also mannered and long-winded.