Focus, simplicity and control. As I look back over the films of 2014, the ones that most stay with me are not the sprawling epics or the movies that tried to cram a surplus of ideas or technique into one story. (Sorry, Birdman and Interstellar.) They’re the movies, not even necessarily the “small” ones, that exhibit something specific in filmmaking technique, or unusually refined in their approach to story. 2014 was packed with movies I loved, and this list could easily be three times as long as it is. Below, you’ll find the ten films that have stuck with me most intensely, along with a page of extra picks that all offer something special, too.
The Honorable Mentions
First up, here’s set of runners-up that are very significant for me, even if they didn’t make the final list of ten films.
The film I didn’t even “like” that I thought about more than any other: The Tribe
I’ve mentioned this one a couple times on other lists and will keep mentioning it until Drafthouse Films puts it in US theaters in late spring/early summer 2015. For now I’ll just say that The Tribe, a movie featuring only characters who are deaf, with all dialogue in sign language without subtitles, has challenged many of my assumptions about developing drama on screen. Change just one thing from the typical approach to drama and the effects resound through the whole piece and echo out into real life. The film’s depiction of an isolated deaf community — even one as movie-specific and brutal as this film’s criminal subculture — challenged my understanding of those communities as a whole.
The film that would have been a serious list contender if I hadn’t seen it in early 2013: Cheap Thrills
Simply a great thriller, in which two down on their luck guys are given an unusual opportunity to dig out of their respective holes. All they have to do is sacrifice, well, potentially everything to make the most of the opportunity. By focusing on just four characters, played by Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, and David Koechner, the film offers the cast a chance to stretch and really dig into their roles as the story explores common anxieties with brutal intensity.
The feature debut that has me desperate to see what a director does next: Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Stylish, confident, and packed with potent observations about social roles, this horror/western/rock and roll movie upends several genre concepts and creates an unforgettable lead character. There are echoes of other films and filmmakers here, but this is one of several films from 2014 that has a unique personality that will stand the test of time. This heralds a great future for writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour.
The “lost” film that gave me something I didn’t know was missing: The Astrologer
At Fantastic Fest Nicolas Winding Refn introduced a film from 1976 that most of us had never even heard of — a movie made by an astrologer which tells the story of a globe-trotting astrologer who makes a movie about an astrologer — and my mind melted. This movie is simultaneously inept, oddly competent, and effective. I don’t think I’ve had as much fun in a theater this year as I have the three (yeah, three) times I’ve seen this movie theatrically in 2014.
The incredible performance that defies categories: Michael Fassbender in Frank
We’ve seen actors do tremendous work under the digital skin of animation and mo-cap technology, but in Frank Michael Fassbender doesn’t have digital artists to paint in facial expressions. He has an immobile head made out of paper mache — so his commanding performance as an outsider musician who finds unexpected popularity is based entirely in physical performance. It’s a joy to watch him work without an actor’s primary tools. With nuance and feeling, he crushes a pantomime performance that could wither other actors.
Coming up next: the first five of my top ten films in 2014.