The Top 20 Films of 2014

by Jaime Grijalba.

Well, ain’t that one chubby beaver.

And with that tasty note, I want to inaugurate my official top 20 list of the best films of 2014 that I’ve managed to see before the announcement of the Oscar nominations, which is my own personal cut-off for this lists year after year. Now, be reminded that even if I go the extra mile to have more films on my plate, I still missed quite a few of the most interesting ones, specially regarding the awards, I haven’t seen the likes of Birdman, American Sniper, Inherent Vice, The Hobbit, Mr. Turner, among many others that have certain looks and likes that they might’ve gone in my list. Anyway, if you want any update on what I end up seeing and rating, I think that reading my 10 Days of Oscar, as well as having some attention to my Muriels ballot should be enough.

So, as many of you already know, and for those who don’t I tell you now, the criteria for my list is that any movie, Tv miniseries, short film, anything, released in 2014 counts for my list; no 2013 films that had a 2014 major release will count here, only 2014 ‘pure’ choices. Many of these films were seen in film festivals and won’t be available for some time, but count these as if they were preemptive recommendations on movies to look out for. On the rest, not much to say, just let’s start with the number 20 and then we shall go up, up and away to number 1, which this year, was the only masterpiece I managed to rate and see.

One small note before starting, the films that have a review or something that I’ve written about somewhere, will have the link to it in the name of the film itself. Enjoy!

20. Los Castores (Beaverland) (Nicolás Molina and Antonio Luco)

Now you know why I put a beaver up there. This is my personal choice of the best Chilean film of 2014, a documentary, no wonder. This is easily the most surprising Chilean film that I saw, as it was the most uncomfortable and the most worthy of a long discussion regarding its true merits and the ways that it uses the material language of the cinema to put a point across, if it ever manages to do so itself. The film starts with the premise that there is a beaver plague all across the southern part of Chile, slowly eating away the trees and most of the life that lives around it,  and how two biologists have taken the responsibility of studying the phenomena, gathering the data, to present the issue to the government and try to find a solution. But at the same time, whenever they see a beaver, they try to find the way to shoot it and kill it, specially if it’s a female, so they don’t reproduce anymore. It is a film that doesn’t shy away from the reality of its subjects, that indeed go around killing animals that for some are cute and innocent, but are doing an incredible amount of damage to the ecosystem of Chile, as they are a foreign species. We may end up analyzing and putting forward many theories and assimilation of concepts onto the images presented here, and the fact that we can do that, makes it one of the strongest films about political conversation and belief systems. You can read a bit more on my review that I linked above.

19. Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)

I managed to see this movie twice in theaters and in 3D, and I think I can manage to see it once more in 2D, but I don’t think it would work in the same way. This film is in some way on a league of its own, the 3D images aren’t exactly the things of beauty that were presented in other spectacular 3D movies like ‘Coraline’ (2009) or even ‘Avatar’ (2009), this is murky and raw film-making in the most amicable way, it is an action movie that plays most of the time in the gray scale, but that doesn’t mean that the film itself is exactly ugly; but, at the same time, this isn’t a film either about how you can experiment with the 3D image, as another choice in this list demonstrates. The film might be the most perfect example of the old-age Image-Movement style of cinema, with a constant array of bodies in space moving from one side to another of the screen, and even if those movements are sometimes subtle and minimal, it is a movie that bases its own narrative on the travel and movement of the bodies, the armies, the monsters, the people, the eyes, parachute operators falling from the sky. This is a beautiful movie, even though its own palette is limited, and that is just the best thing about it, being among my favorite cinematography works of the year. And it’s freaking Godzilla! How cool was that last half hour of film?

18. El escarabajo de oro (The Gold Bug) (Alejo Moguillansky and Fia-Stina Sandlund)

The concept of making a film within a film isn’t exactly new and it has, for some, been used to death by certain filmmakers that want to talk about how the magic of the movies is the most impressive thing of the world, or how the movies turn people together, or how filmmakers are the biggest and most important artists of our time. This movie takes another approach, as it tackles film and film-making as text, equal to the text of a novel, an essay, a short story, a simple photograph is also akin to everything else, here it’s about the way in which those texts reference and work with each other, how the films based on novels, or essays or even in lives of other people are more complex than one originally thought. Here the issues of feminism, adaptation, intertextuality and identity are among the most impressively treated in this film that at times seems more like a lecture, but that in the end is not much else besides a really entertaining comedy, and while some may find it more hilarious than others, due to the fact that some of the actors play exaggerated versions of themselves, so those in the know may have some more fun. I didn’t and I had fun anyways, this is maybe the first of many Argentinian films that we’ll see in this countdown. For some reason, this was their year.

17. The Trip to Italy/Second Season of “The Trip” (Michael Winterbottom)

Depending on how you saw it maybe you ended up seeing two completely different things, and while I haven’t experienced the shorter version of this project, the second season of “The Trip” TV miniseries is an animal on its own when compared to the masterpiece that was the first season. Something completely different, as John Cleese said, is what we have here: six episodes based around, again, six restaurants or food experiences all across Italy featuring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan still working the most impressive, funny and always hilarious imitations of famous actors, singers and social figures of Britain and the world. There’s not much else to say but: watch it, in either form or whatever way it’s available, this is one of the funniest things that I saw in 2014 and still holds up as maybe a lesser but still really recommendable second season to the wonderful series with two really funny doppelgangers of the famous British actors.

16. The Lego Movie (Chris Miller and Phil Lord)

While “Everything is Awesome” may tire some people, I think it’s still one of the few little wonders that this movie has to offer, and while conservative in its views for some, it’s still impressive how a movie that is defined by its issues regarding a brand like Lego. It manages to critique and at the same time develop a love letter to the toys that some of us had the chance to enjoy as little and even as we grew up. This movie reminded me the complex games that I used to play with my brother, mixing up toys from different brands, plastic green soldiers and rules from RPGs and tabletop games that we used to play, as well as video games. We ended up with a mess, a lovely mess that was maybe the most creative time of my life, even if at the same time it was grounded by all these things that were known to us and loved at the same time. This movie brings forward both senses: the rules of the game, and how everything seems to fit in its place, and also the element of full creativity that just relates to those moments in which two things that had nothing to do with each other, suddenly are together and make up for the best moment in our lives. Yes, this movie is awesome, and might be the best animated film of the year, by far.

15. Noah (Darren Aronofsky)

This is at the same time a disappointment and a great surprise. First, a disappointment as it’s the first Aronofsky feature-length film that I don’t consider to be a masterpiece (I am a fan, you know), but at the same time the product that we have here is nevertheless surprising and at the same time enticing of a conversation, instead of being so easily dismissed as it was around the time of its premiere. While presenting the issue of creationism and evolution at the same time, this movie goes for more of an epic scale of things instead of instilling them with realism, like many other modern religious films want to make out of it; while being extremely experimental with the story itself and how it’s presented to the audience, specially those that were very familiar with it (practically everyone), it does bring forward a mythology that was at the same time unknown to most and bringing it to a level that made it understandable. It made everything that is implausible in our world, plausible, by making a world and an essence of what it was all about from the start, as this was practically another Earth, another world, and even a time different from the one presented. This is a major work from a major filmmaker, perhaps his weakest so far, but if this is as weak as he can go, well, we may have a master in our hands.

14. Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (James Rolfe and Kevin Finn)

This is just an all-out silly movie with shoddy effects and production values, but you know what? It has heart, and it was made with so much value for what it was going to be delivered for the core audience, from which I form part of. In a year of GamerGaters and other stuff related to video games, this movie brought it back to what we should really care about: the video games we love because they have a history, because we have an experience, because they move us and they bring us together no matter how or why. This is my occasional window that I have so I can once again say that I’ve never been moved to tears by a movie, but I have been, on multiple occasions, been crying at the end or at an specific part of a terrific video game. It is a hard and endearing experience, and this one while it doesn’t reach as much amount of emotion as an electronic entertainment would, but it is funny and it is characteristic of the Angry Video Game Nerd persona, which at this point I’m willing to say that will always be the best internet character that will ever exist in the history of the world. He takes us back to the past and finally tackles what is called the worst video game of all time: E.T. for the Atari 2600, and the story that he brings forward is something to be reckoned with, something so original and outlandish that it will have you laughing out loud. For fans. Like me. That’s why it’s on the list.

13. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)

This is like a superhero wet dream, and it plays like it should: luscious camera movements, delicately made slow motion effects, brilliant and sometimes incredible special effects… as well some really awesome time travel. This is my personal choice of the best comic-book film of this year, and probably of last year too. It is an incredible work what was done here after a series of failures in terms of X-Men movies, here comes a movie that not only manages to tie it all together not mattering if the movies were good or bad, it even used characters from those particular movies, as well as the timeline, and it moves it forward using time travel and uniting casts from different films and giving the whole thing a taste of a ret-con that would erase some of the mistakes of the past, only to just continue hammering more and more of those films in a new timeline with a bigger and a better cast and storylines to continue. This movie was based on one of the most well-loved comic series of the X-Men, and it shows that the love was correspondent with the film itself. While Quicksilver, the new mutant presented in this movie, steals his scene and maybe the movie, the rest is still highly commendable and rewatchable. Also: Time Travel. Can’t say that enough times.

12. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

This might be the prettiest movie that Wes Anderson has ever made, and while I don’t think that means it’s his best film (that remains to be seen, as I haven’t fully gone into his career as much as others have), it is still maybe his best achievement in terms of cinematography, art direction, costume design and practically everything else, even the script. Many have praised this movie to the higher echelons, and its actual state as one of the most nominated films of the year at the Oscars isn’t only a surprise but actually an incredibly pleasing surprise. It’s easily his most relatable in terms of how it captures the aspect of romance as well as the exciting adventures that it portrays from its troupe of specially eccentric characters. The cast is perfect and among the most well acted of the whole year, and how it frames the story of the film itself and the history that surrounds, the world wars, the concept of death as something close and heartfelt that can make us sad all our lives. It is still a snappy little film, with a wonderful sense of fun and with an incredible score, visual palette and framing devices. My favorite part is easily when the main characters are chasing a secret and they have to go through stages, as if it were a video game. Now, a Wes Anderson video game, that would be quite something.

11. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)

I recently reviewed this movie for this blog, so while you can read the review in the link above, I excerpt you a paragraph of it: “Trying to find some sort of narrative in the film is easy, but what it’s hard to see is the conflict, because there seems to be non existant, and when it tends to appear, it doesn’t stay for too long, it is smothered under the shots of space with no people, the empty places seem to cover any insinuation, anything remotely related to the forces at play, at least until the final 10 minutes, when the entire context becomes something important in relation to the crime that is committed. The three characters come out of their shells and they all fail to the same things that they wanted to protect themselves from, they all finally realize that in the end it was better inside their turtle shells than peeking outside to see if there was something better, to see if the years in the shade weren’t just something that they thought it was OK to live through.”

10. Gone Girl (David Fincher)

Another kinda recently reviewed film at this blog, which you can read up above, right now I’ll leave you with a paragraph: “It’s really rewarding to finally see a film that manages to numb you in such a way that it’s middle surprise feels actually like one, one that might’ve been predicted by some, but can’t actually be believed once it goes into the stretches that it goes, with such cruelty, violence and snark, which makes Rosamund Pike one of the best acting performances of 2014 mainly because of the bleak way in which she delivers her speech, the manner in which she reacts to certain events and mainly due to the monotone and otherwise affected speech patterns that she uses in every situation, she seems to be the parody of a parody of a parody, but it’s never truly funny, because she uses it in a world where that same parodied subject has sneaked through and became the accepted element of society.”

9. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)

I’m a horror nut. But it’s not usual to see horror fare in my list of the best films of any recent year, and that is because horror sucks these days. Nevertheless, sometimes the little gem comes out, and it’s so surprising, so incredible and so utterly frightening, that it even manages to spring into the top 10 films of the year. I’m not one of those afraid of their reputation that they’re not willing of putting genre fare in their top 10s, and even at times at the top of the lists, like with the 1980’s and 70’s, in which certain years are simply dominated by the fare that looks for the scares instead of the art, but in the end, the art comes through, and in this case, The Babadook is what comes through, a fear-filled film with a complex set of sequences that at the same time explain what the whole thing is about and make it even more complex to the viewer. This movie has some impressive art direction and an incredible sense of what to show when, and how to show it, and while for some the scares weren’t scary (it got me with a television scare, when the protagonist looked into the screen and saw herself laughing in the corner, behind a window, even writing those words gave me goosebumps, and I don’t know why I found that thing so scary), or the concept entirely obvious by the end (I think that while finally kinda telegraphed, it’s still a wild and entirely new concept), I think that audiences sometimes just need to fall. Fall for the BA-BA-DOOK-DOOK-DOOK.

8. Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales) (Damián Szifrón)

At the time of the release and when I watched this, I said that it was one of the funniest comedies in a long time, and while I still think it’s a great movie, and one of the best of 2014, I don’t think I can stand by that comment, and that’s saying that I didn’t actually see a better straightforward comedy than this in the entire period. Not because it has decreased in its value, but because I think that its social issues have become more apparent recently, and the love that some people have borders on the fanatic, and that always makes me wonder about the real issues and what a film wants from a viewer in the end. Still, the short structure works, not an anthology as these are directed by the same Argentinian director (the second film from this country in the countdown so far), but as they follow a simple theme of how sometimes we can go nuts because of inequities in our daily life, and they come from every angle of society, whether they be the poor or the rich, the entitled or those that are more miserable, they all have their reckoning day, and while the violence inherent in that is quite astounding and sometimes even reprehensible, in this movie it manages to become something funny, and it can even work as a critique on that kind of behavior, even if its congratulated in the movie itself, one can work a way out of these politics and still enjoy the black, bleak and dark humor in these violence filled wild tales.

7. Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night) (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)

Being recently reviewed at this blog, I don’t really have much else to say about it, except that it may be even more wonderful that I make it out to be in the review that I link up here. Here’s an extract of said review: “It’s never manipulative and it doesn’t force you to take it the ways that the protagonist says it should be, you are still left with your interpretations, just like the understanding main character. There are some highly tense and at the same time emotional moments that fill you with dread and energy at the same time, it is the struggle of this woman that we see on screen that we feel so much about, it is that thing, those eyes, her figure, her strut as she goes finding new coworkers, it is that figure in the landscape that we feel emotional about, because she is in the middle of a crisis yet, even though it is hard for her, she tries anyway and she finds a way, thanks to those who support her and those who come around her to help.”

6. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)

I’ve said it to many people, but I think that even if it’s had quite a few accolades, Jauja is not a film that is easy to love. In recent writings I’ve managed to put forward what I think about it, how it at times seems to be a veiled movie, in which the veils are just new dimensions that are on top of each other, giving a sense of unreality to every camera movement and every shot. Now, that some time has gone by since I saw it, I can think of the film as something akin to the cinema of Raúl Ruiz, the Chilean filmmaker master, where he said in many of his writings that he thought of every shot as a movie in itself, every frame as a new possibility of a story that was discarded and the wandering was preferred, when the silence and the loneliness of our main character makes us wonder what would happen to us if we ended up in a place as weird as the Argentinian Patagonia. Now, this is the third and final Argentinian film in my list, and I think that it does matter to say that it was a spectacular year for them, and this is their crowning jewel, the way in which this almost masterpiece flows in its visual style, cinematography and stupendous framing, it’s something that not many people are willing to endure, but the returns are spectacular, and it’s surely to be an experience to not be forgotten.

5. Mula sa kung ano ang noon (From What Is Before) (Lav Diaz)

What a bummer of a film. I don’t mean that I expected cheer and animosity from Lav Diaz, a director that in one movie has one character dying for over 20 minutes. Here he doesn’t subject us to that kind of spectacle, though it comes close in its final 10 minutes with the images of torture and relentless violence against innocent people.Philippines is a complex country in itself, specially in the era that this movie portrays, and it practically is the same era that is referenced in his “Evolution” and I think in many others. I don’t know if he’s longing for that kind of society before the disruption of violence and killings and such, but he surely loves that era, and he portrays it with all its magic. Here we have elements of religion and mysticism, something that I missed in a movie like “Evolution”, but still doesn’t feel like the 5 and a half hours that this movie has are completely earned. I think that maybe 4 and a half truly are. Besides that, Lav Diaz continues to be one of the most interesting and complex directors of this era, and we should be glad that we are here to witness his genius, his choices and the stories he has to tell. One of the most important filmmakers of this time and one of the most important films.

4. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

The favorite, the critical darling, the wonder that no one can avoid from. This beast of a film that has been in the works for 12 years (but with only 40-something days of shooting), is a wonderful thing to look at, and while it doesn’t achieve a momentum of what one could call gravitas towards a masterpiece in terms of ‘What It Might Tell Us About Life’, it is still one of the most relaxed and at the same time tense narratives that has ever graced American screens. It is the fact that we are watching the bodies grow and change what makes the film something wonderful, as if a magic trick was being put onscreen, with a narrative that goes in three hours and just manages to encapsulate not everything that constitutes boyhood, but what constitutes someone’s boyhood. This is not about how relatable the movie might be, this boy’s boyhood has nothing at all to do with the one I had, starting with the cultural landscape and the place where it comes from, and even if I’m not from the country the kid, I still manage to say it’s a great movie, not because it reminds me of that time (other people might have that in their experience watching this movie) but because it’s an emotional movie, with deep and consciously constructed consequences regarding the issue of growing up. It’s wonderfully edited and maybe the best example of a film that should never, ever, be imitated.

3. Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono)

At the time that I watched this movie I called it the best movie that I had seen so far, and also the best musical of the decade, and maybe also the best of the past decade. An incredible movie where the main music is one I actually despise! Hip Hop and Rap is the main source of music in this movie, and everyone dances and sings to the tune of ‘Tokyo Tribe, Never Ever Die”. The visual style is just preposterous in every turn, and that’s the way that Sion Sono has us used to, the constant moving camera, the way in which a singular character addresses the camera, telling us about the way in which the movie will play out: there are many ‘tribes’ or groups of criminals who surround a main boss that murders schoolgirls and eats them cooked or raw. The film is a constant array of violence and music and it’s easily the most entertaining film that I saw last year, with my foot tapping the floor to the rhythm of the catchy tunes of a music that I had no liking for a minute before going into this movie. Sion Sono remains the most creative and the most prolific filmmaker that is working nowadays, and there’s truly no one that can be at his level in this time and age, churning out movies practically every year with such a high level of quality that it’s crazy.

2. Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language) (Jean-Luc Godard)

(For this paragraph, please put on your 3D Glasses).

People who don’t care about Godard shouldn’t care about film and what it was and what it will be in the future. People who don’t like Godard shouldn’t be allowed to be filmmakers.

In the past few years I’ve had some contact with recent students of film from my own alma mater, and their disdain for anything remotely experimental or ‘boring’ is appalling, actually, my generation had a thing for Tarkovsky, and while that got old fast, it’s better than Xavier Dolan, which is the darling of the current generation.

Which brings me to Godard, which in 3D achieves a depth that in ‘Film socialisme’ (2010) was interesting but alienating to some (I still adore that movie). Filled with quotations and the cinematography of a master that suddenly knows that he can do whatever he wants, not because he already has the support of the critics, but because he is enlightened enough to know what everyone should: freedom is the perfect representation of art.

1. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)

I wrote a review of this film that I still find kinda lacking on my opinion. Nevertheless, I still think that it’s the best movie of the year, and I don’t really care what people say, as the positions they take are so above the film itself (which I think is closer to the ground than most think, it’s not a grandiose thing that is supposed to overwhelm you, quite the contrary) that they are obvious take-downs from the expected people that would never like a film like this. Here is an excerpt of my review that I wrote for a site in Spanish that I later translated for this blog: “The rest of the film is a trip. An exterior and interior trip (as it should be), a search of a new planet in which to live, at the same time as our protagonist fights to come back so he can see his kids again, whom he has abandoned without any clue about when he’s coming back. And it’s now that we have to assume a reality, space travel isn’t fast, and we’re never going to become even close to traveling at the speed of light. It takes them two years to reach Saturn, and that’s just the first of the problems that they’ll face, specially when they realize that the approach to worm holes and black holes leads them, due to the relativity theory, to spend more time than what they thing in one place or another. A minute could end up being the difference between life and death in the planet that they’re trying to save.”

That’s all, I have no real ‘almost-ran’ as I think that these are truly the only 20 films that I managed to see that I’ll remember coming next year and maybe the next. I hope that you comment and find yourself engaged in the conversation. Thanks to those who have come so far down, reading and commenting, and those who have supported me for this long. I hope you have a great 2015 and good films for everyone!

PS: In the process of writing this list and posting it, I managed to see ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’ that I found to be a masterpiece, and it would’ve made this list in number 2, but I guess you can live without that movie there.

2 responses to “The Top 20 Films of 2014

  1. What an interesting list, Jaime! Iove its genuine internationalism — plenty of things that I’d not otherwise have come across for me to look out for on DVD. Many thanks for the tips.

  2. Although I appreciate the reviews, I still kind of think The Hobbit is disrespectful about Tolkien’s work. I find that opinion polluting my view of the film, so I can’t really have a pure opinion of The Battle of the Five Armies as a movie itself. Great work on your list, though, Jaime!

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