Under the Skin (Dir. Jonathan Glazer, A24)
Jonathan Glazer makes movies that seamlessly combine emotional alienation with lustrous aesthetics. The director blends these potentially opposing approaches to narrative by putting them at odds with one another in films that constantly seem in danger of splitting in two. In Sexy Beast, he broke through the languor of a Florida retreat, replacing the indolent heat with a Mephistophelean villain and a steamy climax that brought themes of twisted, aggressive sexuality to the fore. In Birth, he used a storybook visual palette to tell a Gothic tale of emotional trauma and recurrence, with a protagonist whose shaky handle on reality was mirrored by a dreamy, mist-wreathed vision of modern Manhattan. Glazer’s latest film is his most successful fusion of form and content yet, telling the story of a cold alien visitor whose human harvest is disrupted when she’s tainted by infectious traces of human feeling. Transforming from a steely, predatory automaton into an individual wracked by the complex ambivalence of empathy, the film mirrors this process by slipping from a cold, almost monochromatic scheme to one defined by the stark landscape of the windy Scottish moors. Things get both looser and more disturbing as the alien’s emotional capacity expands, the film moving from a stylish-but-simplistic approach to one defined by chaos and disorder, the passage from pure aesthetics to the realm of intricate emotional storytelling conveyed with the director’s characteristic panache. – Jesse Cataldo
“I was raping Frank Herbert, raping! But with love.” It would be an appalling line from any other movie character. But what might pass for outrageous arrogance in another person is endearing from director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who retains a childlike innocence and fire that belies his white hair. Jodorowsky was the most charming character I met in any movie this year, and Frank Pavich’s documentary about a failed science fiction movie is a most resonant portrait of an unbreakable creative spirit. Even for someone like me who could not care less about Frank Herbert. This story about celebrity and uncompromising artistic vision seems like the most specific of niches, but its sympathetic, semi-tragic lead makes it easy to bring out the story’s universal themes of following your dreams and believing in yourself. Thanks in part to this film, Jodorowsky had a chance to make his first feature in 23 years, but The Dance of Reality may well have proved that Jodorowsky is a more compelling storyteller in front of the camera than behind it, his enthusiasm impossibly infectious even when his heart is breaking. But a line from that film gets at the heart of this one: “What you are looking for is already within you.” – Pat Padua
Goodbye to Language (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, Kino Lorber)
2014 was a dismal year at the multiplex, ruled by sequels, franchise starters and glorified promotional tie-ins that treated movies like the related McDonald’s Happy Meal toy and not the other way around. Leave it to Jean-Luc Godard, the 84-year-old genius whose early cinematic lessons have largely been absorbed as neo-advertising style, to not just show young pups how it’s done, but how to continue to expand the medium of cinema. To say that Goodbye to Language is the greatest and most ambitious use of 3D ever made is to damn its technical achievement with faint praise. Rather, his conception of the format’s dialectical properties shows its capacity for aesthetic deception and philosophical and self-reflexive inquiry.
It is fitting that Godard would use 3D to lament the total failure of cinema to elicit “truth,” of the human condition, of political reality, of emotional intuition, of anything. The filmmaker’s didacticism is in full force—witness the battle of the sexes, scrambled historical references, numerous text recitations—but it is undercut by a self-critical, even self-deprecating humility. That frees the director up to assemble some of the most breathtaking shots of his career, such as contrast-fudged digital fauvism, iPhone shots of a dog frolicking in slush and, on two separate occasions, a whirlwind juxtaposition of two 3D cameras that can be described as nothing less than a total reinvention of the superimposition. Language may fail Godard, but images do not. – Jake Cole
The Immigrant (Dir. James Gray, The Weinstein Company)
It’s quite fitting that today’s foremost practitioners of melodrama would set their latest film in a ‘20s milieu that was the heyday of melodrama both on stage and on screen. But The Immigrant is not an old-fashioned film. It is a film about class and about locating new values in a literally new world, and features an innocent woman (Marion Cottilard) forced to work as a dancer and prostitute for Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), Still, the movie subverts the classical villain/victim/hero triangle and undercuts the moments of accusation and recognition that structure the melodrama, beautifully symbolized by an early shot of Lady Liberty greeting visitors with her back turned. Gray’s direction is better than ever, with an acutely tuned idea of when to go in close, a sensibility apparent in a confession scene that ranks among the year’s best. It’s too easy to call The Immigrant mere nostalgia; there is nothing more timely or relevant than relocating current disillusionment to an era so many view as a time for opportunity, nor anything as artistically ambitious as doing so with a pastiche of that era’s art, and Gray does both in a way that could, perhaps, only be compared with Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. Will Gray ever get the widespread recognition he deserves? – Forrest Cardamenis
Listen Up Phillip (Dir. Alex Ross Perry, Tribeca Film)
This movie about contradictions is a contradiction, a celebration of literary structure and at the same time a fierce indictment of the selfish literary man. Its focus is on the world of men who pour their souls out into books (and nurture their jealous artistic rivalries), yet an extended digression genuinely empathizes with those who have to put up with a writer’s failings. With its lengthy use of astute narration, it lives in the world of words even as it uses beautiful cinematography (by Sean Price Williams) to capture the writer it finds there. Critics loved it; people willing to give up their lives to make sense out of art sympathized with and envied Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman, as perfect for this adult role as he was for Max Fischer as a kid), a pompous young novelist enjoying the cozy Manhattan/upstate New York existence of the successful writer, even as they understand why the movie excoriates him. He treats his equally talented photographer girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) like garbage and is sucked into the solipsistic social sphere of Great American Novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce, playing Philip Roth and much more). Writer/director Alex Ross Perry incisively asks: how far we will let ourselves fall into navel-gazing in order to use the experience to write something good? Here’s a movie that perfectly captures the toxic allure of alienating but genuine literary success. – Alex Peterson
Manakamana (Dirs. Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez, Cinema Guild)
The most humane cinematic moment of 2014 may involve a wailing goat. Halfway through Manakamana, a series of uninterrupted 11-minute takes of cable car passengers riding to and from the titular Hindu temple, directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez train their camera not on humans but on livestock. As the trip reaches its bumpiest stretch, a goat cries out in frightened agony, presumably unaware that the open-air car it occupies provides some amount of safety. Although it could be the clearest expression of emotion in the film, it’s impossible to know what that goat is thinking. Some passengers withhold all outward expression, silently squirming in their seat, while others (like a band of metal-heads) take selfies and crack jokes. It’s hard to tell if these reactions are influenced by an awareness of the camera, but the goat’s inclusion makes a case that it doesn’t really matter. Whether Spray and Velez are capturing quietly reverent anticipation and reflection, camera-shy discomfort or some combination, all of these passengers express something that can’t hide from an 11 minute 16mm exposure. Like Leviathan, another product of the Harvard Ethnography Lab , Manakamana counters that film’s dizzying Go-Pro audacity with its own version of the Kuleshov effect, its meaning dependent on the interaction between shots more than on individual shots. The Harvard Ethnography Lab continues to encourage formal invention as a means to explore human observation. Even when that human observation involves a goat. – Andy Barksdale
Boyhood (Dir: Richard Linklater, IFC Films)
If you thought the passage of time in the Before trilogy was fascinating, that is eclipsed by the 12-year progression in director Richard Linklater’s most poignant film to date. Ethan Hawke is again in the mix, this time as a restless father trying to reconnect with his kids, who live with their mom (Patricia Arquette). But as the title suggests, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is the star of this show, and for nearly three hours, we watch a boy grow up before our very eyes. From first-grader to college freshman, Mason’s family dynamic morphs along with his physical appearance. His mom marries twice, seemingly drawn to alcoholics, while his remarried dad goes straight-edge and trades in the hot rod for a family minivan. As with most children, Mason is along for the ride, salvaging personal growth from family turbulence. His interests evolve along with his hairstyle: he experiments, falls in love and experiences his first heartbreak. Linklater’s greatest triumph in Boyhood is mixing profound and mundane moments in the young boy’s life while avoiding punctuating the film with the usual milestones. Filmed for a few days each year, we literally watch Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) grow up, a powerful viewing experience that both actors have said was highly emotional to watch themselves. In a year that has featured two other acclaimed directors helming biblically epic belly flops, Boyhood showcase how there’s nothing more epic than the unyielding march of time. – Josh Goller
Interstellar (Dir: Christopher Nolan, Paramount Pictures)
Hard science fiction is not a popular subgenre. When it comes to visions of space and time, we’d rather see exploding dogfights and laser swords. All the more credit should be given to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar for working in a dry genre to create an engrossing, human story. Centering his film around another career high for Matthew McConaughey, Nolan bridges the fields of physics and entertainment, telling a story that gives equal importance to human desires and alien worlds. Interstellar dares to do more than the average sci-fi movie: it asks the audience to think about the fate of humanity, to question the size of our entire species in the vast gulf between stars. Set in a world where humanity has suffered some terrible cataclysm and is fighting a losing war against a dying planet, Interstellar is both a terribly poignant and optimistic movie. For all of its concentration on real-life science and the conceptual side-effects of space travel, it never loses sight that there are real consequences for everyone involved. It doesn’t matter whether it is the fate of our species or the slow destruction of a family over decades of absence. One of the most visually awe-inspiring films in recent memory, it fills the screen with enormous tidal waves and walls of ice., accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s arresting, astonishing score. For all the film’s ideas and immutable laws, Nolan never loses sight of people.
– Nathan Kamal
Snowpiercer (Dir: Joon-ho Bong, The Weinstein Company)
We almost didn’t get to see the complete cut of one of the year’s best films. In a well-publicized spat, the Weinsteins tried to convince South Korean director Joon-ho Bong to cut more than 20 minutes out of his film. Snowpiercer is punishing and does feel its length, but it is no longer than the bloated comic book films that swarm cinemas each year. It’s a good thing Bong prevailed, as cutting anything from this version of the film would have been a crime.
A topical and terrifying action film, Snowpiercer takes on climate change, socio-economic disparity and oppression. A measure to staunch global warming has frozen the planet, killing off all life. A small group of survivors rides aboard a train designed to withstand a catastrophe. Like a true social strata, the people who live at the front of train are few and possess all of the resources.
This concept of annihilation without the responsibility makes us numb. As I sat through Man of Steel last summer, I realized I had become so jaded by movie explosions that its wide scale damage simply bored me. Such programming makes it easier for us to shrug when a remote control missile takes a village in Iraq. It allows us to create a comfortable us vs. them mentality. The big Hollywood studios are too afraid to show us carnage in a popcorn movie. Snowpiercer should make all the major studios ashamed for the escapist crap they peddle every summer. –David Harris
This audacious documentary captures a seismic moment in our nation’s history with intimacy, curiosity, sympathy and just enough moral outrage. The final film in director Laura Poitras’ trilogy about American life post-9/11, Citizenfour chronicles Edward Snowden’s historical leaking of highly classified government documents that prove the National Security Agency is spying on us. As in, right now. As in, as you read this, and probably while you read this. Just like Glenn Greenwald’s initial reporting and the subsequent stories that have emerged in the 18 months since the leak, the film’s sociopolitical value is irrefutable, but it’s also a splendid piece of filmmaking, a testament to Poitras’ storytelling prowess and ability to capture the true essence of a moment.
Citizenfour unfurls in three parts. In the first, the director reads aloud a series of cryptic and encrypted emails from a proclaimed whistleblower. These sequences have the intensely personal feel of a Chris Marker video essay. When the whistleblower is revealed to be Snowden, the film transitions to Wiseman-esque cinéma vérité as Poitras, Greenwald and journalist Ewan MacAskill spend a week with Snowden in a Chinese hotel room discussing the documents in question, turning the audience into the ultimate fly-on-the-wall. The final and arguably most ambitious section details both the leak’s fallout and the global network of sympathizers it took to protect Snowden and everyone else involved, turning the documentary into a film about itself and the lengths the director took to ensure it saw the light of day. The final scene in this sobering film, seemingly the weakest because of its staged nature and somewhat hackneyed cliffhanger structure, is actually the most optimistic: It’s up to us now. —Drew Hunt
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson, Fox Searchlight)
Melancholy is at the core of every Wes Anderson film, whether lurking behind his meticulous designs, or, as has been more frequently the case in his recent films, in plain view. Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, Anderson’s eighth feature continues that tradition but centers its story on the legendary concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and the famous hotel he runs in the Alps in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. Coming off the success of Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson offers up a film chock full of grandeur and set in a colorful, pastel wonderland. But visual delights merely mask the torturous emotional and political state of characters on the brink of world war. New lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and Monsieur Gustave become inseparable partners in a frantic plot that sees the duo fight the hotel’s closure at the hands of the Gestapo, steal a priceless Renaissance painting that holds the key to a wealthy family’s fortune and rally against oppressors who would destroy Gustave’s old world of etiquette and civilized society. The film is a defense of aestheticism even in wartime. Elaborate escape plans centered around delectable sugary treats are hatched because, naturally, Gustave finds himself imprisoned. Anderson’s acerbic wit is around every turn, but Budapest‘s characters, unlike in his previous, often flippant films, face a tangible threat in the form of invading Germans. Stylized, pseudo-fantastical settings and characters abound, but for the first time Anderson explores emotionally weighty subject matter without diminishing his style. -Katherine Springer