Sunday, January 11, 2015

My Top Ten Films of 2014

Another year when I did not see as many new films as I would have liked.  Nor nearly as many films in general as in some other years.  Yet I still had some high points I wanted to share.  Here are the ten things I saw that most shifted me in 2014.
Joseph Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
Sometimes one film can make you completely rethink your opinion on a director and make you want to suddenly stop watching everything else and fill in whatever gaps may remain of that director's work.  I had one of those experiences with this film.  I have long been a fan of The Barefoot Contessa but aside from that Mankiewicz I have never had strong feelings about anything else I had ever seen from him.  The Ghost and Mrs. Muir reminds of all that I have come to love about Contessa.  It is deeply felt and wonderfully balanced in spite of some very unconventional tonal shifts and emotional territories in which it decides to tread.  Tierney is stunning.  Herrmann's score is among the most emotive I have ever heard.  And this is a flat out masterpiece that deserves a significantly larger reputation. 
Brian De Palma's Passion
A continuation of the director's pet themes of doppelgangers, betrayals, and a vision of the American dream doomed for failure. His cinema continues down its very singular path and his formal approach remains as identifiable as any filmmaker ever to take to the medium. For me the most interesting DePalma film since Femme Fatale.
Charlie Chaplin's A King in New York
What a wonderful oddity.  Although I know there are fans - Jonathan Rosenbaum, the Nouvelle Vague crew, and others - I am not sure this period of Chaplin gets its full due.  I am thinking of Limelight, this film and probably the final one which I have yet to see.  Chaplin does Godard before Godard and delivers one of the most scathing films of America ever made.  His handling of the young boy is marvelous and once again Chaplin proves himself uncannily adept at building scores for his heartfelt imagery.
Marco Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket
Whenever you read about Bellocchio's debut feature, there is talk about how confident and assured it is and how it might just be one of the greatest debuts in the history of film. I cannot argue with any of that but what I was unaware of was how intense and disturbing the work is. Bellocchio gets deep, unnerving performances from his cast and puts together stylistic counterpoints that enhance the specificity of his vision. The overall impact is that of a work separating itself from what we had come to know from Italian cinema at the time. This is neither a highly surreal (Fellini) nor a highly formal (Antonioni) work. Fists is an emotional fireball that thanks to Bellocchio's skill has a shape and form all its own.  
D'Abbadie D'Arrast's Topaze
A film that is at times slightly lethargic from a narrative standpoint more than redeems itself through visual inventiveness and an all-in performance by John Barrymore. I have never seen Pagnol's version so I cannot comment on how it stacks up. D'Arrast proves himself though a very strong director with a keen sense of camera movement and emotive framing. I was particularly moved during the moment when he slowly pulls back the camera during Topaze's farewell speech to his classroom.

Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive
Certainly Jarmusch's most interesting film since at least Ghost Dog. It echoes and adds to so many other strands in his work, doing for Detroit what Mystery Train did for Memphis, doing for the vampire genre what Dead Man did for the western, and channeling Young, Mueller and other shades of Jarmusch in intimate ways that deepen the auteur's unique legacy and footprint in world cinema. There is not much humor making it the director's darkest and most disturbing work but it also rewards in what struck me as the deepest work to come from Jim since Depp was chasing William Blake. 
Yasujiro Ozu's Good Morning
Ozu continues to dazzle. There is so much life captured in his work. And there is a surpising amount of levity to his approach and tone. Although I might prefer a few of his other films, Good Morning would be an absolute masterpiece by most filmmaker's standards. As a portrait on the fear of Westernization in the late fifties, this one has few if any rivals. And it is interesting to see it as an influence on Kitano's style and as a bit of a sibling film to The 400 Blows.

Manoel de Oliveira's I'm going home
Only the second film I have seen so far from the celebrated Portuguese filmmaker and again I was impressed, moved and encouraged to seek out and watch more of his work. At times his aesthetic and sensibility remind me of Rohmer or even Rivette, something very loose and smart, and it does not hurt the feeling of similarity that the film takes place in Paris and features Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve. The title holds several different meanings and the final image perpetuates the contemplative mood and tone that seem to be one of the hallmarks of de Oliveira's cinema. 
Roberto Rossellini's India: Matri Bhumi
Yet another brilliant piece by one of my all time favorite filmmakers. Rossellini teaches us about animals and makes us see them in ways we never have. In the process he also makes us think about our own lives and how many humans have a choice to hunt, be hunted, or like Ramu the monkey at the end actually have no choices at all. A brilliant look at India and a beautiful meditation on life. 
Orson Welles' The Immortal Story
One of the few works by Welles I had never seen is yet another testament to the director's genius and brilliance. The story is labyrinthine and deeply auto-biographical for anyone who wants to think about it in terms of Welles' one-off success with Kane. It joins Renoir's Partie de campagne as one of the medium's all time great short efforts and is incredibly poignant and powerful in spite of the limited means Welles must have had at his disposal.