Romney's 2014 Roundup
In this spot this time last year, I found myself concluding with some relief that, despite doom-laden mutterings to the contrary, the art of film was generally in a state of robust health. Perhaps I didn’t feel quite as excited by cinema in 2014 as I did in 2013—there were few out-and-out revelations, more cases of filmmakers consolidating, building on their past achievements with confidence and style. But the signs are, once again, that cinema as an art still matters.
2014: The Punchline
In fact, the year ended with an urgent reminder that film didn’t exist harmlessly in its own sealed-off sphere, but still had the power to cause repercussions in the real world—a power worth safeguarding. The irony was that it took what few might otherwise have considered an important film to remind us of that. Whether or not it was really the Pyongyang government that took exception to and measures against The Interview—a work by all accounts more farce than sustained political satire—Sony’s decision to pull the film only days before its release confirmed that commentary on the real political world can be a dangerous thing in cinema, and one that must be allowed to speak unhindered (even if it does speak with the voice of Seth Rogen). The Interview notwithstanding, 2014 proved a very politically engaged year in film, with Cannes alone featuring a number of works, both fiction (Leviathan, Timbuktu) and documentary (Maidan, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait), that proposed extremely of-the-moment commentaries on current situations of oppression and revolt. Imagine if any implicated regime, or indeed corporation, sought to suppress one of these films, or Joshua Oppenheimer’s Indonesian documentaries, or for that matter, documentaries by Michael Moore, Errol Morris, or Alex Gibney. Sony’s capitulation may well have made it all the easier for them to do so in future.
Specialist topic – France
The Blue Room
Very occasionally, a given year in French cinema provides the proverbial vintage crop, but most often we’re just reminded that France consistently produces a wide range of strong, individual work. Several of the following came close to making my Top 10: they’re all by directors who repeatedly contrive to find new vivid angles on familiar material, whether their own or from other sources. This year gave us three striking and very different reworkings of literary texts: Mathieu Amalric’s Georges Simenon adaptation The Blue Room, taut, sexually charged and fragmented à la Resnais; Christophe Honoré’s poetic, playfully erotic update of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, refitted for multicultural modern France; and My Friend Victoria, in which the perennially underrated Jean-Paul Civeyrac produced a contemplative Parisian reading of a Doris Lessing story, offering a distinctive and poignant new angle on the black French experience. There was also a crisp new cogitation on the Baroque by Eugène Green, La Sapienza; Benoît Jacquot’s ludic and teasing quasi-romance 3 Hearts; and Eden, Mia Hansen-Løve’s sprawling reminiscence of the French house music scene, at once rapturous and poetic. Watch out for these next year.
The LEGO Movie
Again, Hollywood failed to bring us much that was fresh, but there was one magnificent anomaly in the form of The LEGO Movie. This was not only the smartest, most wittily self-referencing merchandising tie-in to date, but an authentically hallucinatory use of CGI animation, which treated pixels like little plastic bricks, little plastic bricks like pixels, and the whole world as it were made out of both. For similar reasons, I got a kick from the underrated Edge of Tomorrow, at once a robust example of the “Tom Cruise showcase” as a genre in itself, and a sly parody of that genre. It eventually settles for being a textbook example of that very genre, but for at least its first half, Doug Liman’s film was a canny renewal of futuristic action tropes, based on the idea of repetitive genre recycling as a valid conceptual strategy in itself.
A Million Ways to Die in the West
It’s rarely worth naming and shaming the year’s worst if it’s purely on the grounds of ineptitude; some incompetent films simply deserve to slump unnoticed into merciful oblivion (although I can’t go without noting that the bleakest two hours I spent in a cinema this year were provided by A Million Ways to Die in the West).
But really, the films you want to single out are those that operate with an inflated sense of their own importance, whether their makers piously believe they’re making grand statements (Claudia Llosa’s ponderous “We are the world” statement Aloft), or just constructing sheened, hollow red-carpet prestige machines. In the latter category, there’s the obvious case of Grace of Monaco, a wretched example of the biopic as gilded souvenir postcard, justifiably resented by anyone who would rather have started Cannes by getting a decent meal under their belt—or watching an actual film. Then there was Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children, a hectoring piece of polemic that hit new heights of furrowed-brow obviousness. As for the much-admired Interstellar, it’s not without imagination, ambition, or visual grace, but it’s at once studiously earnest and crushingly mundane: it made visiting other galaxies through wormholes seem as momentous as a trip on the Eurostar and back.
Proving that 2014 was really a pretty good year were titles such as (alphabetically) The Babadook, Boyhood, Force Majeure, Ida, Maidan, A Most Violent Year, Night Will Fall, Timbuktu, What We Do in the Shadows, and one I’d nearly forgotten that was largely overlooked in Berlin: Yannis Economides’ Stratos, a talky (à la Mamet, that is, rather than Tarantino), hyper-jaundiced Greek crime movie that’s also a striking panorama of moral compromise in times of economic adversity.
So here’s a Top 10, for what it’s worth, although these things are always provisional and a little arbitrary. Writing from the U.K. for a U.S. publication, I sometimes forget which film has been released in which country and when, which led me to inadvertently including one film in my FILM COMMENT Top 10 two years running (never mind which one). So here’s an amended lineup, with comments and links for some, including a film (at #7) which jumped in at the last minute, despite my reservations.
1. The Tribe (Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine)
The year’s true UFO and out-and-out revelation: a film about young deaf people made using only sign language, with no spoken dialogue and no subtitles. Poised, brutal, and entirely sui generis, this was one of those rare films in which a director follows a subject to its logical limits, making us re-assess our watching and listening habits in the process. Expect major praise when it emerges in 2015, and—I suspect—a substantial backlash, but this film was like nothing else.
2. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, U.K.)
3. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia)
Reviewed in next week’s column.
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, U.S.)
5. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
6. Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France)
The surprise of the year: a mischievous, rambling comedy thriller from a director you never imagined having that much of a sense of humor (although now I’m beginning to wonder about his Humanity). If you only see one French cattle-mutilation comedy whodunit in 2015…
7. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, U.S.)
A mesmerizing, economical, keenly original drama about psychological warfare and the rigors of jazz mastery—and finally, after hearing about it for months, I saw it in time to refresh my Top 10. J.K. Simmons’s big-band instructor is one of the great monsters of recent cinema. It’s an astonishing performance, and a very physical one: not least in that terrifying signature gesture with his clenched fist. I have misgivings about the barnstorming climax, though. I couldn’t help thinking: personal triumph for the hero, perhaps, but I bet the sax section was really pissed. And how might the film’s insights apply to drummers who aspire to playing not like Buddy Rich, but like Paul Motian? Still a dazzling piece, though.
8. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, U.S.)
One of the year’s most underrated and most singular: Diary of a Country Priest crossed with High Noon, resulting in a scabrous comedy—theologically resonant comedy, at that. Cinema gave us three leviathans this year: the Russian film of that name, Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner, and Brendan Gleeson’s soft-spoken but emotionally thunderous lead here.
9. Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan)
If you must, the last word in “slow cinema”: one man pacing like a barely animated statue through Marseilles, with another eventually following him at the same pace. Seen on an IMAX screen in Berlin, it was an incomparably strange site-specific experience.
10. The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (Guillaume Nicloux, France)
In all honesty, there may have been better French films that didn’t make my final list, but this was one of the most enjoyable and most interesting in its showcasing of a great contemporary antihero, novelist-provocateur Houellebecq. Here he got to riff magnificently on his image as a creepy, yet oddly sympathetic malcontent—a sort of literary Larry David. Nicloux’s comedy presented him to good advantage, whereas Houellebecq’s other appearance this year, in Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern’s minimalist NDE (Near Death Experience), lived up to its title as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, God forbid that we should have too many cinematic near death experiences in 2015. Happy New Year and bonnes projections…