I was going to make a best-of music list for 2014, but I don’t think I can really do that fairly. Then I thought of movies, but realized that I’ve only seen five that were released in 2014. But I watched a lot of other movies! So here are my top ten films that I saw for the first time in 2014:
10. ANDREI RUBLEV (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966, USSR/Russia)
“When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn’t explain. What should he explain anyhow? He is a spectator, capable of staging his visions in the most unwieldy but, in a way, the most willing of media. All my life I have hammered on the doors of the rooms in which he moves so naturally. Only a few times have I managed to creep inside.” – Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern (1988)
Our eponymous hero, the 15th century Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev, is not present for many episodes of this film. Furthermore, when he is onscreen, he’s almost never painting or even talking about painting. Instead, we, with or without him, float through disjointed episodes of hot-air balloon flights, pagan rituals, biblical reenactments, brutally violent massacres, torture, and even the casting of a giant bell. For over three hours, the savagery of the middle ages and the stark beauty of the Russian landscape invite the grandest questions about the role of the artist. So often, these mysteries are confused with the content of art itself. Not here, though, and it couldn’t be more effective. Rublev’s work itself, if presented in stock biopic fashion, would look old, sometimes pretty, and probably underwhelming to most. But with the context of seemingly endless harrowing and prophetic dream-like visions, the final revelation is almost unbearable in its beauty and profundity.
9. THE COMFORMIST (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970, Italy)
The Conformist might be the best looking movie I’ve ever seen. You would be hard-pressed to find a single frame that is less than beautiful, inquisitive, and cautiously inviting. As great as Jean-Louis Trintignant in the title role, the real star is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who announced himself to the world with this gorgeous parade of forest sunrises, swirling red leaves, white-washed institutions, underground soirées and reflections on windshields.
I don’t mean to downplay Trintignant. He is killer as the passive, enigmatic assassin in Mussolini-era Italy, sent on a conflicted mission to Paris. I won’t spoil the deliciously labyrinthine plot and its brilliant non-chronological exposition of flashbacks within flashbacks, except to say that the storytelling is at once tight and patient, never missing a beat. Like Storaro, writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci introduced himself to the world with this film, widely considered among his best. The Conformist remains a fresh, gripping, deconstructive crime story that could easily be released today. If you’re a fan of the gritty spontaneity of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, the chronology manipulation of Woody Allen and Alejandro González Iñarritu, or the voluptuously stylized enigmas of Quentin Tarantino and Chan-Wook Park, this is a must-see!
(A footnote: Storaro has gone on to become one of the premier cinematographers of his generation, winning three Oscars to date for Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor).
8. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (Victor Sjöström, 1921, Sweden)
Film pioneer Victor Sjöström writes, directs and stars in this Dickensian tale of punishment and redemption that is both beautiful cinematic storytelling and also absolutely essential viewing for anyone interested in film history. In our present day context, Sjöström is most known for his performance of Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries. Decades earlier, Sjöström was Sweden’s first major filmmaker, and in the groundbreaking The Phantom Carriage, he achieved what would become his most influential work. The impact on Bergman is widely written about, and the Criterion edition of Carriage has some great special features on this subject including an interview with Bergman from the 1980’s. Additionally, Charlie Chaplin is said to have called this the greatest film ever made!
The visual effects are incredible, especially for their time. Most dazzling are the transparent ghosts, spirits and phantoms, made possible through the use of double exposures. F.W. Murnau most famously utilized this technique in his classic Sunrise (1927) to essentially create a green screen within the camera by filming on different parts of the same frames at different times. Six years earlier we have Sjöström filming the entire frame on top of itself, with camera placement and movement replicated exactly on each take. The result still works today even to our CGI conditioned eyes. In fact, I would argue that Sjöström’s transparent figures are more convincing in this 93-year-old film than those in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999) or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cannes winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). Also adding to the visual feast, the B&W images are tinted either blue or sepia depending on the action on screen, further transporting the film into its own world.
All technical mastery and innovation aside, the film is still a marvel. Victor Sjöström is a force on screen. His portrayal of David Hand is bereft of all silent film cliches and code-era niceties. Instead we are presented with one of the original film anti-heroes. The violent self-induced trainwreck of David Hand’s life is maddening in the sympathy is begs. Why is it that we can’t turn our backs to these detestable people? David Hand, Travis Bickle, Charles Foster Kane, Daniel Plainview, even Alex and the droogs…. Do we see too much of ourselves in them? Are they enacting a suppressed side of our inhibitions? Do we desire them to be redeemed? Punished? Or would we rather watch them wreak havoc freely?
There is a deeper electricity, still, to Sjöström performance beyond the character of David Hand. It is that rare energy of a filmmaker at the peak of his powers on both sides of the camera. The visceral mastery and command of the screen I felt watching Citizen Kane, Unforgiven, Annie Hall, The General and The Great Dictator pulses through every scene of The Phantom Carriage.
If I somehow haven’t yet convinced you that this Swedish silent film from 1921 is awesome, consider this iconic tribute from the great Stanley Kubrick:
7. KILLER OF SHEEP (Charles Burnett, 1977, USA)
At age 30, director Charles Burnett made his feature-length debut Killer of Sheep for under $10,000. It was his masters thesis at UCLA film school. The music used in the film was too expensive to license, so no one would distribute it. In the thirty years that followed, the film circulated through a handful of festivals and underground circuits, becoming a critics’ favorite while otherwise drifting in purgatorial obscurity. Even though the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress selected this work in its very first batch of films for permanent preservation in 1990, it was never formally released and remained unseen by most. In 2007, UCLA and film director (and fan) Steven Soderberg financed a restoration of the film and paid for all the music rights, totaling $150,000, and thus the film is now available on DVD. If you’ve seen the movie, you know why it had to be this music and this music only.
Charles Burnett paints a tragic yet affectionate portrait of a family living in Watts, CA. Stan, our hero, works a god-awful job at a slaughterhouse, literally killing sheep 40 hours a week. He makes enough money to put food on the table, but he has no upward-mobility to speak. He and his family are good people, and their lives do not seem to be plagued with the intense violence we hear about on the news, yet they are still paralyzed by the disease of poverty. There is no beginning and no end in this story, just a series of episodes. Some are touching, some are innocent, most are frustrating, and none ever add up to anything. Nothing changes. We end where we begin: purgatorial obscurity.
Yet there is so much magic and beauty here too. Long takes of neighborhood kids playing in streets and abandoned lots. Comical, quirky, infuriating characters drifting in and out. The simple joys of having coffee with a friend, or dancing in your living room. And the music. This is right up there with the best of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino when it comes to effectively utilizing a diverse soundtrack of previously recorded music. Through his use of music by William Grant Still, Paul Robeson and Dinah Washington among others, Charles Burnett presents a striking juxtaposition: the breadth, subtlety and brilliance of African-American art against the harsh difficulties in which so many people (still) live in this country. This is poignantly epitomized in the scene where Stan and his wife are slow-dancing at home to This Bitter Earth by Dinah Washington, one of the most perfect sequences I’ve ever seen on film.
6. THE GREAT DICTATOR (Charlie Chaplin, 1940, USA)
Thirteen years after talkies came along, Charlie Chaplin finally jumped on board and opened his mouth with a caricature of Adolf Hitler in a slapstick comedy. How could this be anything but offensive and stupid? How could this possibly hold up today? As a huge fan of Chaplin’s silent movies, I avoided this film for years. I couldn’t have been more skeptical. About five seconds into his first speech as Hynkel – Dictator of Tomania, I was completely converted.
Chaplin stars in his first dual-role, playing both Hynkel (the Hitler parody) and an unnamed Jewish barber (a loose variation on “the little tramp,” hero of many prior Chaplin films). Naturally, the physical comedy is phenomenal: breathtaking, creative and laugh-out-loud hilarious. More surprisingly, Chaplin is just as funny when he talks, particularly with Hynkel’s fake German ramblings. His verbal comedy feels like a comedian at the top of his game, drawing on years and years of experience.
Most impressive of all is the film’s searing look at pre-war Germany. The greatest horrors were still mostly unknown to the Allies when the film’s production began in 1938, but Chaplin saw the writing on the wall in ways that few others dared to that early on. Tragically (but remarkably) many of the things Chaplin intuited about Jewish ghettos, concentration camps, poison gas, and the yearning for world domination turned out to be true. In the face of these looming atrocities, Chaplin’s biggest take-down of Hitler is in making him utterly ridiculous. Here we see the dictator as a man who can’t even write a letter or walk down a flight of stairs without the aid of hundreds of yes-men. Brutality lingers in the shadows, but incompetence and hubris stretched to their most laughable extremes are on grand display.
5. THE INTERRUPTERS (Steve James, 2011, USA)
The first time we see Flamo, he is the most terrifying presence we’ve encountered, entering the film half-way through. He’s reached out to Cobe, who he met in prison. He says it’s an emergency. Cobe and “Hot Rod,” both violence interrupters for CeaseFire, are at his front door (along with Steve James and his camera). The police have raided Flamo’s house, kicked in his front door, arrested his brother who is bound to a wheelchair due to a gunshot wound, and worst of all they handcuffed his mother through the whole ordeal. Flamo is convinced he knows who told the police to invade his home, and he’s seconds away from exploding as he articulates his livid plans for retaliation. It was at this point that I started to lose hope.
One of the things I love most about Steve James (the greatest documentarian ever?) is his interviewing style, or lack thereof. He doesn’t interrogate or ask leading questions, he never judges. He simply listens with respect and allows people to speak for themselves, no matter the situation. I was struck watching The Interrupters how similarly the violence interrupters relate to the people they’re reaching out to. Cobe and Hot Rod do not judge Flamo, they don’t demand control of his situation. They listen, they build trust, and they make space for the fires of adrenaline and anger to subside.
The violence interrupters are a division of the Chicago non-profit CeaseFire, and their mission is fairly straightforward. The interrupters are all ex-convicts, and they make it their business to stop violent conflicts before they happen and interrupt conflicts while they happen. While other groups are approaching the systemic problems of urban violence, these people are working on the ground with individuals one-on-one to help them see another path. This is dangerous work, and many times we see Cobe, Ameena and Eddie, the primary subjects of the film, walk towards the line of fire rather than away from it.
Did I lose hope during the film? Yes, several times. Did I regain hope? Yes, even more times, as transformations and resolutions large and small continued to emerge, sometimes instantly, sometimes at a glacial pace as bitter resentments drip away and burning embers cool. Late in the film, as Cobe gives Flamo a ride to his new job, Flamo says “To keep it real with you, I had like three, four people lined up, and I was really plotting on how to get them, but you were just in my ear, you know what I’m saying? You constantly in my ear, you bugging me for a minute. Like, I’m sleeping and this fly keeps landing on me until eventually I had to get up….”
4. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951, USA)
Alfred Hitchcock is at his most potent in the realm of improbable yet plausible circumstances. Many of his most enduring films hinge on our deep fear of being falsely accused, and in Strangers on a Train he finds a fascinating variation on this theme with the enveloping web of the psychotic Bruno Antony, brilliantly played by Robert Walker. For whatever reason, Bruno Antony hasn’t made it into the common vernacular the way Norman Bates, Frank Booth and Jack Torrance have, but that doesn’t make him any less unnerving. Yet unlike Norman, Frank and Jack, who seem (or in Jack’s case become) unable to control their violent compulsions, Bruno Antony is patient, methodical and completely aware of his own actions. If he reminds me of anyone, it’s Kevin Spacey’s character in Se7en, who, like Bruno Antony, seems impossible to pinpoint at times, and nearly omnipresent at other times.
It’s always a treat to watch Hitchcock’s images, and I’m especially partial to his movies that drift into film-noir territory. Like his previous work in Spellbound and Notorious, Hitchcock presents here an effective marriage of noir-inspired shadow and light vs. dark with his more classical sensibilities of negative space, symmetry, and left/right symbolism. So many images in this film are unforgettable. To name just a few, there is the famous tennis match where the entire crowd is following the ball back and forth except Robert Walker, staring straight ahead from the center of the crowd. There’s the carnival boat ride, which features very inventive and genuinely frightening shadow play (this must be an influence on Night of the Hunter). Being a Hitchcock film, there is of course an ominous staircase, and on a lighter note, Hitchcock’s trademark cameo involves him transporting an upright bass!
3. STORIES WE TELL (Sarah Polley, 2012, Canada)
A young woman assembles the members of her family to tell their account of the story. Somewhere this shifts into a biography of her mother, the one family member who links them all, and the only one who is no longer living. In the mother’s story, a mystery emerges and the focus shifts again.
As the mystery is solved and its consequences play out, a much deeper movement takes place. What began as a semi-autobiographical documentary about family has seemlessly become a kaleidoscope of life’s great questions. Who are we? How objective can the truth be? Can the truth fully be known about something? Can something be factually false but emotionally true? How can our memories shape us if our memories are unreliable? Does a person even exist at all outside of their relationship to the world around them? How well is it possible to know someone? These and many more quandaries are at the heart of Sarah Polley’s beautiful, patient, unpretentious and moving documentary Stories We Tell.
2. WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (Béla Tarr, 2000, Hungary)
I’m not sure where to being with this film except to say that this was a genuinely unique experience. Hungarian director Béla Tarr tells this non-story of a story with just 39 shots over 145 minutes! Not only that, but the camera is pretty much always moving fluidly, framing things immaculately, drawing on negative space, shadow, symmetry. For those who were into the single-moving-camera choreography in Birdman, Werckmeister Harmonies is an unrelenting feast. The story, as much as it exists, follows a young man named Janos who works a paper route in a small town in Hungary. A foreboding circus is coming to town and bringing with it a dead whale. Something is amiss and things in the town are beginning to unravel. Meanwhile, Janos’s musicologist uncle György is railing against the work of Andreas Werckmeister, a baroque composer and theorist who was integral to the innovation of even temperament.
A simple synopsis doesn’t come close to evoking what this film has to offer, so I’ll leave you with the opening two shots of the film, the first of which is over nine minutes!
1. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (William Wyler, 1946, USA)
They meet for the first time in a military airport with only one thing in common: they’re on their way home to Boone City. The Great War has ended and the unlikely friendship forged by these three men of different ages, careers, incomes and lifestyles provides for them a bedrock of solidarity as combat, injury and amputation give way to ambivalent reunions, awkward misunderstandings, restless ennui and what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Almost three hours long, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives is the anti-epic. The glory and adrenaline have faded, and what remain are the bittersweet realities of every day life. Bitter because nothing can ever return to how it was before. Sweet because people endure. They lash out, break down, they get drunk, they fight, get fired, embarrass themselves. They try again. They forgive.
Every aspect of this film is worthy of discussion! For now, I’ll offer three highlights from this near-perfect work of art:
HOAGY CARMICHAEL: A total surprise to me in the opening credits was the casting of Hoagy Carmichael, one of my all-time favorite songwriters. In a small-ish role, Hoagy plays the affable no-nonsense bar owner Butch, uncle of our beloved hero Homer. Many scenes involve Carmichael at the piano, and it is an absolute joy to hear and watch him play. He is totally destroying some stride piano, and it is super swinging. Although I love many films with fake piano playing (most notably Casablanca and Anatomy of a Murder), the realism of this film is further heightened by the casting of a real musician, and a killing one at that!
GREGG TOLAND: Famous for his use of deep focus, particularly in the monumental Citizen Kane, cinematographer Gregg Toland grounds this film with perfectly blocked long takes. In many scenes, there is crucial action in the background and foreground, and all these elements remain in focus throughout. Not only that, but the framing is so spot-on and the techniques at play are so subservient to the storytelling, I found it effortless to follow multiple interactions at the same time.
HAROLD RUSSELL: For all the movements in film that have championed non-professional actors, it’s ironic that one of the most famous and most successful non-professional screen performance comes from the hey-day of big studio Hollywood, in what at the time was the second highest grossing film to date. At age 30, Harold Russell was involved in a horrific explosion during an Army training exercise, which resulted in the loss of both his hands. Sporting a pair of hooks the following year, Russell appeared in the Army training film Diary of a Sargent, which caught the eye of director Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn. In The Best Years of Our Lives, Russell plays Homer Parrish, the youngest in our trio of returning veterans, whose youth makes his disability all the more tragic. Is there a more likeable, honest, sympathetic character in all of cinema? If so, I haven’t seen it. Russell is a profound example of the great director Vittorio de Sica’s idea that anyone and everyone can play one role perfectly: themselves. Russell doesn’t act as much as he simply exists on screen. Every longing gaze, every refusal of the help of others, every charming smile tells the story of millions of veterans all over the world, who are unable to extricate themselves from the abyss of the deepest existential questions.
The Academy rightly wanted to draw attention to this performance. Although Russell was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, they figured he didn’t stand a chance (and in their defense Claude Reins is pretty killer in Notorious). So instead they presented Mr. Russell with an Honorary Oscar “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.” Later that night, in a surprise upset, Russell won Best Supporting Actor too, making him the first and only actor to receive two Oscars for the same performance.
The film’s producer Samuel Goldwyn (The ‘G’ in M-G-M) famously said of this picture, “I don’t care if the film doesn’t make a nickel. I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it.” Like most great war films, it could be about any war. As veterans continue to return home today, and as we all wrestle with the ambivalence of patriotism, the inevitability of violence, the loneliness of one’s own experiences and the enigma of sacrifice, this film’s power, relevance and truth remain wholly undiminished.