I saw 58 movies in the theater in 2014, and I thought it was a very good year. As in past years, what I’ll offer in lieu of a “best of” list is a list of movies I was compelled to see more than once in the theater, but this year more than others there are a bunch of films I only saw once that I would happily recommend. There are a number of these that I will undoubtedly watch again when I get the chance, although these days my viewing schedule is so clogged it’s harder than ever to re-watch new or old favorites.
So let me start off with the two films that I saw three times in the theater, and which I’ve been calling my two favorites of the year since I saw them. (There’s a third film that seems to be joining this list soon, but I’ll get to that later.)
The Grand Budapest Hotel – As I’ve said before, I had mixed feelings about Wes Anderson up until Moonrise Kingdom, which is a film I love whole-heartedly. Same goes for Anderson’s next film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’ve tried to analyze what it is about these two films that I prefer to his earlier ones, and I think it’s mainly that the damaged narcissists he has always focused on have either been sidelined, as in Moonrise Kingdom, or given actual heroic qualities, as in the concierge M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is a deeply tragic story that’s told as a farce, which is a pretty incredible balancing act.
Snowpiercer – It was a great year for science fiction in the cinema, and this was the best of a very good lot. It’s a ferociously intelligent dystopian blockbuster about the problem of power, and South Korean director Bong Joon-ho handles the transition to an English language international all-star production with ease. Tilda Swinton was in three of my favorite films of the year (she was also brilliant in Only Lovers Left Alive), and she is a total hoot as the sniveling toadie to the train’s godlike Engineer in this one. This is a work of satirical genius on many different levels. (See further comments about Bong’s filmography below.)
And so we come to the films I saw twice in the theater. This is more or less the order in which I saw them.
The Best Offer – This English-language film by the Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore came out of nowhere as far as I was concerned, but I was captivated by the almost gothic atmosphere of the estate house and the finicky performance by Geoffrey Rush as the neurotic art appraiser called in to assess the belongings of an even more neurotic heiress. I hadn’t seen anything else by Tornatore, and this one got me to watch three more of his, none of which was quite as good as this, although all were interesting in their different ways. I still haven’t watched Cinema Paradiso, which is probably his most famous film.
The Wind Rises – Hayao Miyazaki’s alleged swan song didn’t do very well in the United States, possibly because it’s aimed more at adults than kids or teens. Some American (and Korean) critics also seemed to think that Miyazaki was glorifying his protagonist’s part in building the Japanese war machine, but I think they completely missed the point of this tale of a dreamer who is oblivious to the cost of his dreams.
Under the Skin – I’m generally not a fan of horror movies, but sometimes science fiction horror films will get past my defences. This one certainly did. It was still hard to watch, but it was also one of the most beautiful films of the year. A lot of people saw Kubrick in this, but I saw more Nicolas Roeg. It borders on the avant garde, so don’t go in looking for a plot-driven action film.
The Congress – Yet another science fiction film! This loose adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel is a strange hybrid — half-live, half-animated — and I thought the animated sections were some of the most amazing stuff I saw on the big screen this year. It’s a difficult film with a mysterious ending, but a second viewing convinced me that it’s a gem. A wonderful role for Robin Wright, and it’s a shame she hasn’t gotten more recognition for her performance.
Gone Girl – I came out of the theater the first time thinking it was fun but largely inconsequential, but it grew on me over time. The discussion amongst various critics was also fascinating. Rosamund Pike’s psychopathic Amy is widely considered a misogynistic caricature, but I thought what gave this one satirical bite is the way that she and the narcissistic Nick (Ben Affleck) actually do make a perfect couple of sorts.
The Zero Theorem – Terry Gilliam’s latest — more science fiction! — barely got distributed in the US and has been dismissed by some as a pale shadow of Brazil, but I thought it was a fascinating exploration of religious themes. I actually got a great comment on my review of this one from someone signing as ky: “i assumed qohen had dual personality and he was Gods alter ego, rats were the movie reviewers, churchs former owners was judaism, buying the church at a cheap price was old testament, black hole was order in chaos referring to gods necessity, zero theorem was quantum mechanics referring to gods death and the ending was his acceptance on being a god whom humans no longer need.”
Into the Woods – Okay, here’s the one that I can easily see myself watching a third time in the theater. Disney’s adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim fairy tale mash-up musical simplifies the story somewhat and cuts or reduces characters and songs, but it largely retains the themes (“wishes come true, not free”) and the heart of Sondheim’s brilliant music. I found it deeply moving. The two kid singers are terrific, and Emily Blunt is surprisingly good in the pivotal role of the Baker’s Wife.
As I mentioned above, there are a number of other films I’ve seen only once so far that I’d happily recommend, but since most of them are ending up on lots of top ten lists, I’ll just mention one that hasn’t gotten so much attention: A Field in England. This is a bizarre black and white fantasy set during the English Civil War and featuring several deserters involved in a struggle over lost alchemical secrets. The thing plays out like a fever dream or drug trip, and in my review I described it as Monty Python Meets Alejandro Jodorowsky. Cult movie, for sure, and I’m very much looking forward to director Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Ballard’s High Rise, due out in 2015.
In these year-end reviews I try to mention a film or two that I hated, so in that vein let me mention Cold in July. This was promoted as a kind of film noir, and I thought it started out interestingly enough, with a home owner killing an intruder by mistake. Gradually, however, it morphed into macho fantasy about shooting cartoon bad guys in slo mo in a burning house. Totally ridiculous, adolescent crap.
In case you think I do nothing but watch movies in theaters, well, I’m here to tell you that I watched 101 movies at home last year. The closest thing I came to the Bunuel fest I indulged in last year was an exploration of South Korean movies that I started after being blown away by Snowpiercer. I watched the rest of Bong Joon-ho’s films (I’d seen Mother previously) and was wowed by Memories of Murder and The Host. I also caught up with more of Kim Jee-woon, whose The Good, the Bad, the Weird has become a favorite, and I was particularly struck by his twisty, atmospheric horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters. Park Chan-wook is the other genre director from South Korea who gets a lot of love from American film fans, but while I thought Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Old Boy were works of obvious genius, they were way too violent for me. In fact, my interest in exploring South Korean films was derailed by a number of violent films I watched (Save the Green Planet was the straw that broke the camel’s aback), although I really think it’s mostly that exploring a national cinema is just too big to do as a splurge. It’s something that has to be done over time. The one SK film that I really loved that I don’t think is widely known over here is Take Care of My Cat, which is about a group of high school girlfriends entering the wider world and finding their friendships tested. Really warm, well-observed movie that reminded me to some extent of the Japanese film Linda, Linda, Linda, and not just because both films feature the great Doona Bae. Highly recommended.
I saw a lot of other great movies at home, too, but that’ll do for the year end review. I’m still catching up with highly anticipated 2014 releases, with four films opening last Friady that I want to see. The film industry is going through massive changes, but plenty of good films are still being made all around the world. Can’t wait to see what 2015 has in store.