With awards season in full swing and the Oscars just around the corner, international film critic Wael Khairy brings you the movies you totally should have seen by now.
I’ve compiled this list based on the same principles of my mid-year list. I won’t rank the films in order of best to worst, because it’s pointless. However, to satisfy the human need for quantifiable return, I’ll start my list with what I undoubtedly consider the best film of 2014, Winter Sleep. The rest is randomly placed in no particular order.
The enrichment and sophistication Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep bestows upon its viewers firmly backs my belief that film is the greatest art form of them all. I’ve noticed that throughout the initial viewing of films I cherish and hold dearly, there’s always a single distinctive moment when the film hits the right chord, and forever embeds itself in your heart. It could be a spoken line, an image, or even a realisation of the way things are in life sparked from the many ways the screen can move us; Winter Sleep has many. It’ll make you think about the way you deal with others; it’ll stir your inner monologue; it’ll make you consider your surroundings so that when you look around, you also see.
With a runtime of at a little over three hours and 15 minutes, some may turn away from such a film. Will you believe me if I tell you, it’s the shortest three-hour film you will ever see? They say no good film is too long and no bad film is short enough, and it’s true. When the credits rolled I wished there was more, and it wasn’t for the striking cinematography, the masterful acting, or the subtly beautiful music; Winter Sleep is so much more than the sum of its parts. If you have the patience to let it work on you, it’ll leave an indelible profound impression. Winter Sleep is not only the best film of the year (by a margin), it’s one of the greatest films ever made.
Under the Skin
Country: United Kingdom
In an earlier review for Under the Skin, I wrote that I wasn’t sure if I would ever watch it again. I’ve re-watched the film five times since making that statement. With over a hundred years of cinema, filmmakers recycle, remake, and try to improve upon originals with lesser sequels, etc. Rarely do I stumble upon a film that shows me something new, something I’ve never seen before. Under the Skin did just that. The music, sound effects, cinematography and art-direction are so fresh and different; it almost feels alien, much like its protagonist, an extraterrestrial being played by Scarlett Johansson. She terrorises the streets of Scotland seducing pedestrians; much like the visuals seduce the viewer. Through our protagonist’s development from an “it” to a “she”, we slowly grasp the fundamentals of what it means to be human. On another level, victimising men with the promise of sex will give male audiences a taste of what it’s like to walk down a dark alley as a woman in a man’s world.
Bennett Miller proves once again that he’s one of the best filmmakers working today. The director tends to pull the best out his actors; he directed the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman to his Oscar-winning role in Capote, Jonah Hill to his first Oscar nomination in Moneyball, and Brad Pitt to another nomination in that same movie. In his third and gloomiest film yet, Miller pulls career best performances from Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, and Steve Carrel. This true story is bizarre, disturbing, and engaging. It sucks you into one of the darkest chapters in the history of Olympic Wrestling.
James Gray’s best film to date is also the most underrated film of this year.Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner, and Joaquin Phoenix shine in this epic film about a theater manager who tricks an innocent immigrant into a life of prostitution.Everything about this film is beautifully realised and polished. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been transported to another period fully realised with so much craft. The cinematography is a thing to behold. In fact, the very last shot in The Immigrant is in my opinion the most memorable cinematic image of the year.
Most of today’s audience know Zhang Yimou for directing epic wuxia films such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. While this small film may seem like a departure for the director to the contemporary viewer, those who have followed Yimou’s career will tell you that Coming Home is the master’s return to telling simple, heartfelt stories. From a pure technical standpoint, films are simply moving pictures, but the best of them move the audience as well. Coming Home is so moving; it could bring a tear to a glass eye. Yimou’s frequent collaborator, and arguably cinema’s greatest actress, Gong Li, delivers another powerhouse performance as an amnesiac mother waiting for her husband to come home.
What We Do in the Shadows
Country: New Zealand
If there’s one comedy to see this year, it is this low budget gem from New Zealand. What it lacks in production values, it makes up for in utterly brilliant humour. Mark my words you will be laughing hysterically throughout this little treat. What We Do in the Shadows does to vampires what Shaun of the Dead did to zombies. I can’t wait to see what the filmmakers have next in line. Till then, I shall watch What We Do in the Shadows again and again.
Two Days One Night
Marion Cotillard is the best actress of her generation, and despite the Academy’s many misses at this year’s Oscar nominations, I was wholeheartedly happy when I saw that Cotillard made the cut. Two Days One Night tells the story of a woman and her husband as they drive around from house to house trying to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so she can keep her job. Each and every encounter will stir some kind of emotion from the viewer, be it anger, sympathy, or grief. Roger Ebert once said, “What moves me emotionally is more often goodness than sadness. People behaving well in difficult situations really get to me.” He would have loved this film.
The Babadook is the horror film of the year and probably the best horror film to come out since Let the Right One In. Now, that may not be saying much since the horror genre hasn’t been all that impressive lately, but it really is a rather brilliant film. Here’s a horror film that strays away from cheap thrills, and taps into something real, a real human fear- grief, anxiety, and depression.
Like all great films, Birdman is about life itself. Inarritu satirically mocks professional criticism, blockbusters, art, and even social media, in a film that is just as much about the film industry itself, as it is about the pursuit of happiness, and our ridiculously desperate need to be admired, recognised, and respected by people that shouldn’t really matter to us. It is, in many ways, a wakeup call to look around you, and realise the people you take for granted every day, the people who love you for who you are, regardless of success or failure. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is one of the best films of the year.
The Wind Rises
Before The Wind Rises official release date, Hayao Miyazaki aka Walt Disney of Japan, announced that this would be his final film. Naturally, my expectations were very high. I can’t say there’s a single film of his that I didn’t enjoy. His swan song exceeded all my expectations. The Wind Rises is his most adult film yet and the most heartbreaking animated film since Disney’s The Lion King, or even Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies.
Calvary marks John Michael McDonagh’s second collaboration with Brendan Gleeson following the awkwardly funny, The Guard. For those of you who don’t know, John Michael McDonagh is Martin McDonagh’s brother; he directed In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Both brothers have proven to be some of the most promising writers of their generation. All their films are instantly quotable with hilarious dialogues covering though-provoking themes. Gleeson plays a good-natured priest who is faced with a death threat in the film’s captivating opening confession scene. The priest didn’t do anything wrong, and the man in the confession booth knows it. But the mysterious man who admits to being orally and anally raped by a priest during childhood thinks killing a good priest over a bad one will have a bigger impact. He gives our protagonist a week to make his peace with God and those around him.
Who would’ve thought that the most intense and suspenseful film of the year would revolve around a drummer trying to perfect his craft in a classroom? Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is not your typical inspirational teacher-student film. In fact, if anything, it completely sidesteps every cliché of the sub-genre. The result is the most unpredictable film of its kind and possibly the year.
One of my favourite foreign films of the year comes from Sweden. The film takes place in a beautifully isolated ski resort and follows a family of four on their vacation. However, everything soon falls apart after a “controlled” avalanche nearly hits a perfectly peaceful dinner.
Besides breathtaking visuals set against classical music, what really struck me was the metaphor at heart of this picture. A small family disagreement slowly snowballs into something that could very well end their marriage. Much like an actual avalanche, the problem escalates and grows, to the point that it stumbles into the lives of another couple. Ruben Ostlund’s film is the worst date movie of the year, and will have you questioning what you’d do or say in a similar situation. Some scenes are so painfully awkward, you won’t know whether you should laugh or cry.
If it wasn’t for the film’s third act, I wouldn’t have placed Interstellar amongst the best films of the year, but it’s hard to argue against the film’s memorable finale. The ending will leave inconceivable images and thoughts rushing through your head. Interstellar is about the passage of time in the blink of an eye. Our lives are over before we know it and we powerlessly watch the lives of others speed before our eyes. Our children grow up in no time, our parents grow old fast, and we find ourselves helplessly getting pulled into the continuously moving current of life. But the one thing that always triumphs time and science is love.
Honourable Mentions: Ida, Locke, Edge of Tomorrow, John Wick, The Equalizer, Snowpiercer, ’71, Starred Up, Leviathan, Honeymoon, Nightcrawler, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Gone Girl, The Drop, Kill the Messenger, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Boyhood, Selma.
Special Mention: Life Itself