From Ukraine’s Maidan to Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, Our Top 10 Films of 2014

Despite the ever-growing obsession with crappy remakes and computerized images of blowing shit up, the year featured some challenging, meaningful films.

Michael Atkinson December 18, 2014

A scene from the Iranian drama Manuscripts Don't Burn.

It’s been far from a spe­cial year, in terms of movies in Amer­i­ca. A few more pre­cious feet of cliff-edge were lost to the encroach­ing C.G.I. army-ant siege of com­ic-book boom-booms, dis­tend­ed sequels, half-heart­ed remakes, T.V. cin­e­m­iza­tions, and movies adapt­ed from toy lines. At the same time, there have been few­er great and chal­leng­ing films than we can usu­al­ly count on to act as toe­holds in the onslaught. In short, movies built for nom­i­nal­ly con­scious teenagers rule an ever-grow­ing ter­ri­to­ry, while cin­e­ma tar­get­ed at adults is becom­ing a ghet­to, in both pro­duc­tion and distribution.

The list harbors no less than four films that must be considered, in and of themselves, outright acts of political resistance. You don't come by such things everyday, and we may not have seen such an uptick since the late ‘60s.

It’s an old sto­ry, of course, but that only means it’s an incre­men­tal process decades in the mak­ing. The task at hand, how­ev­er, is to assess upward, since year-end Top Ten lists aren’t meant to bury cin­e­ma but to praise it. Thus: here are my favorites of the past year.

1. Maid­an (Sergei Loznit­sa, Ukraine)

A gim­let-eyed, patient doc­u­ment of the 2013 – 2014 upris­ing in Kiev, which Loznit­sa (arguably the great­est work­ing post-Sovi­et film­mak­er) caught with his implaca­ble cam­eras with­out nar­ra­tion or inter­views, from the ecsta­t­ic occu­pa­tion of Kiev’s Maid­an to the inevitable com­bat between bul­lets and grenades, and Molo­tovs and bricks. Enrap­tur­ing, dev­as­tat­ing and always unem­phat­ic, it’s an object les­son on how to cap­ture his­to­ry on film, and by far the best new film I saw in 2014.

2. Man­aka­mana (Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez, US/​Nepal)

Anoth­er heart­stop­per from the Har­vard Sen­so­ry Ethnog­ra­phy Lab, this for­mal­ly rad­i­cal doc­u­men­tary sim­ply accom­pa­nies pil­grims to a moun­tain­top Hin­du tem­ple in Nepal, with­in an Alpine gon­do­la (a trip that used to take three days but now takes 10 min­utes). Up and down we go with the natives on hol­i­day, in uncut jour­neys; we’re not told how to feel, but just pro­vid­ed with the expe­ri­ence of pass­ing through the Himalayan air in good company.

3. Good­bye to Lan­guage (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland)

Grand­pa Jean-Luc, the still-kick­ing Dar­win of post­mod­ern cin­e­ma, goes 3‑D in this serene, autum­nal med­i­ta­tion, and dares to one-up a tech-man­ic youth-world with usages and ideas no one’s ever come up with before. Just as enig­mat­ic and faux-con­tem­pla­tive as his last decade of film, a self-dis­sect­ing essay about the unknowa­bil­i­ty of life and movies.

4. Closed Cur­tain (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

Under house arrest and banned from film­mak­ing for 20 years, Panahi con­tin­ues mak­ing films covert­ly any­way. This mir­ror-mir­ror rumi­na­tion on his own strug­gle to craft art in a soci­ety ruled by Iron Age mani­acs was shot secret­ly in his beach house on the Caspi­an, and with its dreamy ten­sion and real-world inter­po­la­tions it nev­er ceas­es to daz­zle as an unar­guably hero­ic objet de resis­tance.

5. Heli (Amat Escalante, Mexico)

Min­i­mal­ist, styl­ized and yet as authen­tic as blood-bead­ed sand, Escalante’s new film, about a fam­i­ly sucked into Mex­i­can drug car­tel may­hem, is as unpre­dictable as it is, in cer­tain moments, horrifying.

6. Win­ter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Cey­lan, Turkey)

Cey­lan is a film-fes­ti­val giant, and this is his sixth near-mas­ter­piece in a row, adapt­ing Chekhov’s The Wife and Excel­lent Peo­ple and explor­ing the moral and psy­cho­log­i­cal stress ramp­ing up between a wealthy ex-actor, his dis­con­tent­ed young tro­phy wife and his aging sis­ter in the scenic resort they own in the Tau­rus moun­tains. Despite the film’s phys­i­cal beau­ty, it’s 100% char­ac­ter and acting.

7. Man­u­scripts Don’t Burn (Moham­mad Rasoulof, Iran)

Anoth­er apos­tate in Iran, Rasoulof is also banned from mak­ing films, but made this scabrous dra­ma instead while out on bail, eschew­ing Panahi’s metaphors and mys­ter­ies and limn­ing a more con­ven­tion­al but explic­it tale of state oppres­sion, in which a gov­ern­ment-ordained dis­ap­pear­ance” ruins both the vic­tims and the hired agents car­ry­ing it out. It has­n’t been, and won’t be, seen in Iran.

8. Bird­man (Ale­jan­dro Gon­za­lez Iñár­ritu, U.S.)

The best Amer­i­can film of the year? This hap­py exco­ri­a­tion of mod­ern celebri­ty cer­tain­ly has more than its fair share of brio, con­text, vivid inven­tive­ness and per­for­mance octane, but it also comes heft­ing a fierce­ly adult per­son­al­i­ty, from its allu­sion-rich script to its cease­less-take struc­ture to the semi-impro­vised acting-about-acting.

9. Cit­i­zen­four (Lau­ra Poitras, U.S.)

Is this even an Amer­i­can film, or is it state­less? After untold harass­ment, Poitras relo­cat­ed to Ger­many, while co-con­spir­a­tor Glenn Green­wald has expa­tri­at­ed to Brazil, and this scar­i­fy­ing and imme­di­ate doc was shot entire­ly in the Hong Kong hotel room where Edward Snow­den unleash­es his hon­esty onto the world. Orwellian in the most chill­ing sense.

10. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glaz­er, U.K.)

A moody, sub­ter­ranean meta-genre exer­cise, fol­low­ing Scar­lett Johansen around dark Scot­tish neigh­bor­hoods and seduc­ing men – who are then led to a neb­u­lous­ly defined alien oth­er­world, and con­sumed. Unde­ni­ably bewitching.

My run­ners-up, in order because it’s only fun that way: Leviathan (Andrei Zvyag­int­sev, Rus­sia), Mr. Turn­er (Mike Leigh, UK), Boy­hood (Richard Lin­klater, US), Ida (Pawel Paw­likows­ki, Poland), Blue Ruin (Jere­my Saulnier, U.S.), Child’s Pose (Calin Peter Net­zer, Roma­nia), Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, Tai­wan), Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund, Swe­den), Fox­catch­er (Ben­nett Miller, US), Two Days, One Night (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dar­d­ennes, Bel­gium), Night­crawler (Dan Gilroy, U.S.), Inher­ent Vice (Paul Thomas Ander­son, U.S.), Nation­al Gallery (Fred­er­ick Wise­man, US/UK).

I want­ed to like James Gray’s The Immi­grant, Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of His­to­ry, Ben Rus­sell and Ben Rivers’ A Spell to Ward Off the Dark­ness, and Wes Ander­son­’s The Grand Budapest Hotel much more than I even­tu­al­ly did, and could­n’t have tol­er­at­ed Morten Tyl­dum’s The Imi­ta­tion Game, Christo­pher Nolan’s Inter­stel­lar, J.C. Chan­dor’s A Most Vio­lent Year, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash or Woody Allen’s Mag­ic in the Moon­light any less.

I tend­ed to avoid movies tar­get­ed at chil­dren. Clear­ing away the build­ing blocks and action fig­ures, look what you get: My list har­bors no less than four films that must be con­sid­ered, in and of them­selves, out­right acts of polit­i­cal resis­tance. You don’t come by such things every­day, and we may not have seen such an uptick since the late 60s. (Of course, polit­i­cal­ly dis­rup­tive films might just pro­lif­er­ate when there’s more state injus­tice to buck up against.) In some cru­cial ways, movies can still matter.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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