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  • Don’s Favorite Narrative Films of 2014 (Part 1)

    Best of 2014

    By | December 31, 2014

    BOTL

    I have a difficult time ranking films that share no common elements other than they were all shot on a medium that can capture both moving images and sound. The ranking of anything — especially art — seems completely arbitrary to me and the fact that most year-end lists focus on the “top” or “best” really makes no sense. While I guess there are certain basic mechanisms of filmmaking that can be done well (thus making a “good” movie) or can be done poorly (thus making a “bad” movie), for the most part it is all just personal opinion. I prefer to approach talking about films in terms of whether or not the film works for me; whether the film is interesting and stimulating, whether it does something new and exciting with the cinematic medium.

    I try to approach film criticism by way of reception studies, looking at the ideas and messages being conveyed by a film and how the audience might interpret that information. I believe that it is important for people to be more cognizant of the information that they are consuming while watching films. I also think our own personal histories and life philosophies play very significant roles in determining which films we appreciate the most. Our moods can also drastically affect how we receive films; we can watch a film and hate it one day, but love that very same film after a second viewing. So, basically, any year-end list can only represent a single snapshot of an opinion at one particular moment.

    This year I have opted to approach my year-end list-making a bit differently. Except when casting my “Best of 2014” ballots for Smells Like Screen Spirit’s “Top 20 Films of 2014,” Indiewire’s 2014 Year-End Critics Poll, the Online Film Critic Society’s 18th Annual Awards, and the 2nd Annual Nonfics Year-End Poll, I have vehemently rallied against the ranking of films or calling any one particular film “the best.”  For this particular post, I am purposefully not listing any films that have already been recognized on this site’s “Top 20 Films of 2014.” The purpose of this post is to recognize my favorite films that did not make that “Top 20” list for one reason or another.

    For the most part, the following films were not widely seen in 2014 — a significant majority were made without the financial support of a studio and only received small (“boutique”) theatrical (or VOD-only) releases in 2014. A majority of the films on this list also qualify as “low-budget” and/or “micro-budget” films; several of the films are also feature-length debuts. This probably says a lot about my taste in cinema as of late, but I believe that it is also a testament to the ever-increasing quality (and quantity) of true independent films.

    It should go without saying, but I very strongly recommend seeking out every single title on this list. Okay, enough of my jibber-jabber, let’s get on with this darn list already!

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    24 Exposures (dir. Joe Swanberg)

    Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas finally broke writer-director Joe Swanberg into the mainstream consciousness with the help of Hollywood actors. 24 Exposures, however, can be seen as a return to Swanberg’s earlier, randier days. The most effective of Swanberg’s contemplations on the relationship of the man behind the lens and the women in front of it, 24 Exposures discusses the use of artistic freedom as a guise for sexual conquests; most importantly, Swanberg hones in on the psychological aftermath on the women left in the artist’s wake.

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    Ape (dir. Joel Potrykus)

    While the title of Joel Potrykus’ feature-length debut might allude to the guerrilla suit, it also suggests the primitive nature of Trevor’s existential turmoil… Ape evolves into a profound economic study of slacker culture, specifically the inherent ambivalence and naive expectations of that world. Like a square peg being forced to fit into a round world, Trevor just cannot comprehend the rules of Capitalism and why he needs to be successful in order to survive.

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    The Babadook 
(dir. Jennifer Kent)

    The most confident feature-length debut of 2014, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is a fully-realized nightmare hinged upon two astounding lead performances (Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman) that fastidiously examines the psychological hardships of solo-parenting. If you do not appreciate the bone-chilling sound design or the creepy mise-en-scène, maybe The Babadook will probably make you think twice about procreating.

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    Butter on the Latch (dir. Josephine Decker)

    In February 2014, writer-director Josephine Decker made one of the most impressive one-two punches in the history of cinema, fatefully premiering both Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch in the Forum section of Berlinale 2014. While there have been several (though not nearly enough) feminine and feminist films in the history of cinema, Decker takes these qualities to a much more primordial level. Decker gets directly to the deep and dirty emotional roots of what it means to be female. Rather than making “girlie” films, Decker’s films are gloriously gritty and unnervingly honest. Decker’s feature-length debut, Butter on the Latch, establishes a fantastical mise-en-scène in which nightmares and libidinous desires coexist. Butter on the Latch luxuriates in the sublime lyricism of primal rhythms and gypsy folklore; abiding by a unerringly hypnotic pulse, the psychological framework skillfully relegates the viewer into a near hallucinatory trance, reflecting the woozy, sleepless unease of the two protagonists.

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    Cheap Thrills (dir. E.L. Katz)

    E.L. Katz’s feature-length debut Cheap Thrills is an incredibly intelligent, albeit hyper-violent, condemnation of this phenomenon; all the while, Katz also ruminates upon the economic disparity in the United States and the financial desperation of the working class. So, yeah, Cheap Thrills is clearly the smartest hyper-violent film I have ever seen. Pat Healy nails his performance as Craig, providing us with someone who dives headfirst into a cesspool of moral ambiguity. Held back from pursuing his dreams by the Capitalist machine, Craig learns to take ridiculous risks in order to make quick cash, rapidly evolving into a greedy, selfish jerk.

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    The Discoverers

 (dir. Justin Schwarz)

    Writer-director Justin Schwarz’s feature-length debut, The Discoverers, features an incredibly intelligent script that forces its characters to confront their own theories of history, both personal and national. It is the smartness of the writing that escalates The Discoverers above the recent barrage of familial reconciliation stories that have appeared in the wake of Little Miss Sunshine. It is utterly impossible to discuss this film and avoid mentioning Griffin Dunne’s astounding lead performance as Lewis — though I think Madeleine Martin matches Dunne stride-for-stride in her supporting role as Zoe.

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    The Double (dir. Richard Ayoade)

    Richard Ayoade’s The Double is adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella of the same title. Channeling the dark and moody dystopian worlds of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen, The Double is staged in a universe that seems futuristic but also recalls the early days of computer databases. The Double speaks rather metaphorically to the horrors of the homogenization of post-industrialized society, creating an Orwellian environment that is bogged down in the quagmire of ridiculously absurd bureaucratic processes. Arming the screenplay with obvious cinematic reference points, Ayoade repeatedly turns to film history to help further inform the narrative, building his own stylistic brand of cinema, tying everything together with a uniquely droll style of absurdism.

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    A Field in England (dir. Ben Wheatley)

    A Field In England is a magnificent film that is both fantastically dramatic and absurdly amusing. Shot with an air of classicism in luxurious black & white film with quasi-archaic camera equipment, A Field In England is inherently bleak, yet transcendentally beautiful. The stoic plodding of the narrative never undermines the sublimely wackadoodle undercurrents; a 17th-century period piece featuring characters tripping on psychotropic mushrooms while digging for treasure can only purport to be a certain level of serious.

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    A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
 (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)

    Shot in the style of a graphic novel, Lyle Vincent’s gorgeously high-contrast, black and white cinematography highlights the surreal atmosphere of this Iranian vampire romance. Languidly paced and utterly devoid of tension, writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature-length debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, circumvents any kinship with the horror genre, relying quite heavily on its atmospheric mood to keep its audience transfixed. Even the film’s presumed gender politics are conveyed by way of softly blurred metaphors that drift dreamily in and out of the narrative.

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    The Guest (dir. Adam Wingard)

    Adam Wingard’s The Guest purposefully starts off rather subdued as David (Dan Stevens) masterfully ingratiates himself into the Peterson household. Eventually the story evolves into an ’80s-esque action flick that teeters on the verge of becoming parodic. The fight scenes are just as humorous as they are impressively choreographed, culminating in a visually orgasmic coup de grâce set in a haunted house. Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett have really outdone themselves with The Guest, with chilling black comedy and astounding visual panache it is the most fantastically entertaining action flick of recent memory.

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    Now its time to venture on towards Part 2 of this post here

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