I’ve decided that a “best films of the year” list is an illusion. All I can really give you is a “favorite films that I saw this year” list. There are so many excellent films being made, but only a fraction of them played on a big screen here. The reason? Tucson’s one art house can only show so many movies a year, and the commercial multiplex theaters are for the most part limited to the formulaic Hollywood products that the industry thinks could make a lot of money. So I can’t possibly claim to have seen the best films of 2014. But I will give you a taste of what I liked from those I was fortunate enough to see.
No film lived up to its title last year more than The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s intensely gorgeous epic satire on the modern city of Rome as microcosm of Western culture’s decadent corruption. And yes, the words “epic” and “satire” don’t usually go together, but Sorrentino’s story about a famous writer whose creativity stopped when he became a member of Italian high society, combines the narrative sweep of an epic with the dark self-critique of social comedy. That is the contradiction. We revel in the luxurious widescreen imagery while gradually coming to recognize the emptiness at the core. In the leading role, Toni Servillo projects a sense of world-weary poise and nostalgia for an experience of love that perhaps was never real to begin with. Along the way, we see the pretensions of the wealthy few, the politicians, and the Catholic Church exposed to the light of day, and yet Sorrentino never allows his honesty to sink to mere mockery or contempt.
Moving from the classic style to a kind of messy postmodernism, Inherent Vice, the latest from genius director Paul Thomas Anderson, is my next favorite film of 2014. Joaquin Phoenix plays a stoner Southern California detective in 1970, utterly dedicated and yet not all there, whose meandering path through an absurdly complicated plot involving a kidnapped millionaire and a drug cartel is a very funny and affectionate portrait of a time we call the 1960s, refracted through the cracked lens of the private eye film noir genre. Among the fine supporting cast I must mention Josh Brolin as one of the funniest parodies of a tough macho cop I have ever seen. You’ve heard the phrase “maybe you had to be there.” Well, I was there, and this is a chance for you to go back.
And I must pay tribute to Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s film that took twelve years to make, a chronicle of growth from child to young man, with newcomer Ellar Coletrane aging along with his character right in front of our eyes, along with Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei as his parents and sister. The unique method of the film may obscure its actual intent and achievement—as it turns out, Boyhood is not so much about the passage of time, but about the awareness of ordinary people of their experience in a moment that is always now. In other words, Linklater uses the largely mundane events of a boy’s life to highlight the curious paradox of time and memory. Thus the emphasis on awkwardness, the avoidance of conventional drama, and the sense that adults never quite understand or appreciate the child’s experience. Boyhood has such a clarity and balance, such a tension between intimacy and distance, that it challenges the way we usually watch films or even listen to stories.
And finally I acknowledge Ida, a quietly powerful film by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, as one of the finest works of 2014. The story concerns a nun novitiate in the early 1960s, an orphan who discovers that she has an aunt, and that her parents were Jews who are murdered during the war. The aunt is a judge for the Communist regime, bitterly sarcastic and disillusioned, and the combination of the religious girl and the jaded aunt is very poignant. Shot in beautifully crisp black-and-white, and in a traditional square screen ratio, Ida pays homage both to the loss of innocence and a purer style of filmmaking.
So that’s my top four for ’14. I wish you all a great 2015 at the movies.
The full list of 10:
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino).
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson).
Boyhood (Richard Linklater).
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski).
The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh).
The Past (Asghar Farhadi).
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson).
In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross).
Violette (Martin Prevost).
Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry).
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