Russ Fischer’s Top Ten Films of 2014

Duke of Burgundy trailer

5. The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)
In a different year this could be my number one. Peter Strickland creates a visually stunning pocket society in which men are totally absent, and where the residents of a small town primarily seem to study butterflies and sell elaborate sexual accessories. Beyond the aesthetic achievement this is also a film with a resonant emotional center. Strickland creates an initial air of mystery, drawing us in to a relationship that at first seems high-pitched and unusual, but which we quickly realize is subject to all the same forces as the love affairs the rest of us embark upon. And that’s the real triumph here — a simple achievement, but a significant one. The Duke of Burgundy avoids the obvious approach of turning the film’s core couple into an exotic object of fascination, and instead treats them like two people. The result is one of the most memorable screen romances I’ve seen in years.

(I considered holding this back for next year, as it is a festival film that hasn’t been released in the States. But IFC will have it in theaters on January 28, and that’s close enough for me.)

David Oyelowo in Selma

4. Selma (Ava DuVernay)
2014 had no shortage of biopics focusing on artistic, scientific, and political figures. But Selma is something else, a film that keeps its eye squarely on Martin Luther King the man, rather thank MLK the icon. This is a film that understands doubt and weakness and the spirit that keeps us all pushing forward. It understands the factionalized, often fractured nature of activism and the difficulty that any group faces when trying to effect change, even when the goal is as clear-cut as voting rights for African-Americans. Selma doesn’t attempt to deify King, but through David Oyelowo’s incredible performance elevates our understanding of him by showing how often he had to push against his own shortcomings and uncertainties to help the United States take some of the most significant social steps in our history.

Ida

3. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
Like a spiritual noir created by Ingmar Bergman, this story about a nun-to-be who dives into her family history is a rich investigation of faith, mistakes, and responsibility. Strenuously restrained and as simple and austere as the outer life of the young woman whose name gives the film its title, Ida is a great example of what a filmmaker can achieve with equal measures of confidence and trust in the audience. Director Pawel Pawlikowski paints a devastating portrait of one character whose path in life is revealed as being horrifically compromised, but the film does away with many obvious methods of emotional manipulation. Ida has the power to shatter an audience, but is controlled enough to let us come to terms with the story’s grief on our own.

inherent-vice-header-3

2. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
After my introduction you might be tempted to look at this one as an anomoly, and yes, you could use words like “sprawling” and “messy” to describe Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film. But those ideas only get at the superficialities of Inherent Vice. What Anderson has really done is apply a shift in emphasis and focus to Thomas Pynchon’s novel to create a portrait of two characters who could be halves of the same brain. “Doc” Sportello, the bright burnout who has taken the counterculture low road, and “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who set his sights on the establishment to make his ambitious dreams come true. Scenes which appear to be digressions turn out to be crucial to building character; nearly everything in the film is in service to those two characters and their relationship to power structures, and ultimately their relationship to each other.

Only Lovers Left Alive

1. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Like no other vampire movie ever made, this is also a rock and roll movie and a film about creativity, love, and the spirit that binds us to the rest of the world. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are softly spectacular as two people (or creatures) that have seen centuries come and go, and who continue to find their place in a world that has an ever-smaller space for them. Dreamily gorgeous, backed with an incredible soundtrack (also co-created and performed by writer/director Jim Jarmusch) and guided by a drily contagious sense of humor, Only Lovers Left Alive is the movie of my dreams.

***

For the rest of our year-end picks, see these lists:
Germain’s Top Ten | Angie’s Top Ten | 50 Great Movies to See in 2014

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