A jilted bride finds independence on her honeymoon alone. A talking raccoon and talking tree defend the universe. College students struggle with their racial identities. Movies from 2014 took us on a satisfying emotional roller coaster.
Story by Rumnique Nannar
We’ll preface our list with this acknowledgment: when December rolls around, we all feel that need to catch up and binge-watch all the great films, TV shows, and albums that appear on year-end lists. It’s a thrilling rush to finally realize why Queen had audiences captivated with joy, or that Boyhood mined moments from your childhood in such an honest manner.
I’m guilty of the same problem in abiding religiously to “best-of” lists, but I caution you against watching four Oscar-hopefuls on one day, because it’ll feel like eating a whole packet of chocolate biscuits in one go: gratifying but gluttonous by the end. Watch these films at your own pace so you can cannily drop them in conversation around Oscar season like a seasoned film buff!
10. Guardians of the Galaxy – This film wasn’t supposed to work, with its leading man Chris Pratt and space-opera leanings, plus a wise-cracking raccoon and talking tree which didn’t gel with the Marvel franchise. Yet walking in with zero expectations, we came away joyously surprised in this anomaly of a superhero film that didn’t rely on huge names, countless explosions, and its fidelity to the jokey roots of 70s comics. I won’t tell you how many times I saw this over the summer as a pick-me-up, but suffice it to say, the film is a scruffy and lovable buddy film that just happens to occur in space. Pratt is tipped as the next tentpole hero (Jurassic Park!) but here he imbues a cocky charm and wit as the lone human of his ragtag bunch of saviours, which includes a hilarious Bradley Cooper voicing Rocket Raccoon, a green Zoe Saldana, a slyly comic Dave Bautista, and Vin Diesel, who manages to evoke emotions through his stock line of “I am Groot.” If that all sounds silly, it is. However, that’s the charm offensive that director James Gunn unleashed in this sleeper summer hit that deserves a chance.
9. Only Lovers Left Alive – Move over Twilight, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston take the crown as the coolest vampires ever, with help by the ever-hip director Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch’s vampire love story conjures up a swooningly beautiful dreamscape that’s punctuated by yearning, and deep sadness as the titular lovers attract and repel. As with a Jarmusch narrative, the plot isn’t important but its the reinvention of vampires that truly hooks you in as gone are the simpering teenagers, or overly-sexy vamps from the True Blood school. These vampires’ love is cemented by the wide-ranging conversations on their fellow artists like Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Shakespeare, Jack White; it’s the celebration of the past, of artists who captured the spirit of their ages and have an
eternal legacy. Swinton and Hiddleston are gorgeous together, and lovingly evoke a long-distance love that’s instantly sparked up when they meet and listen to records together. Tangiers and Detroit form the nocturnal cities that the two frequent, which is lusciously filmed and make spooky hideouts as the lovers claim their victims in dark alleys and abandoned homes.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Sometimes Wes Anderson is accused of being too arch with his doll-house aesthetics, and sexless with his scrupulous characters who don’t fall in love so much as are arranged together in Anderson’s grand narratives. However, critics be damned, because Anderson has created his tightest and perhaps best film that’s both a return to his novelistic style and enhances his rigorous pop-arty visuals. Ralph Fiennes carries the film on his nimbly comic performance as concierge Gustave H, who takes Zero (Tony Revolori) on a wild caper concerning a stolen painting that takes place during two world wars and multiple owners of the titular hotel. Once again, it’s a game of spotting the Anderson repertoire company: Tilda Swinton as H’s elderly lover who leaves him the valuable painting, Edward Norton as a methodical commander, Bill Murray as the leader of a secret society of concierges, and Adrien Brody as a brutish heir after H’s inherited painting. He also calls on newbies like Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Almaric, and Saiorse Ronan. It’s a testament to his precise screenplay that all these actors have their moment to shine, even though it’s a bit like he’s dressing up his friends, who don’t shift accents or style to suit the old setting, which works as a cute quirk too.
7. Mommy – Xavier Dolan is the patron saint of brash and dynamic cinema in Canada, and Mommy cements his reputation as one of the country’s most fearless auteurs. We’ve raved about this film before, but since watching it again the film reveals itself as one of the most even-handed depictions of turbulent mother-son relationships in cinema. Anne Dorval delivers a hilarious and bruising performance as Die, the sassy and raucous mother of the uncontrollable Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) whose lives are changed by their neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clement). Every moment of the film is bursting with energy and tension, with the unpredictable outbursts from mother or son in trying to get a rise out of each-other in their close but toxic relationship. Dolan clearly loves Dorval and Clement giving them free reign to create two wounded portraits of motherhood and vulnerability. Here’s hoping this cheeky gem nabs an Oscar nod.
6. Charlie’s Country – This Australian film managed to slip into cinemas quietly, despite lead actor David Gulpilil winning the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a heartbreaking look at the remnants of colonialism, which has restricted the Aboriginal communities in rural Australia, which is depicted through Charlie’s hardships in asserting his culture in an oppressive atmosphere. Director, Rolf de Heer makes sure the film is a complete downbeat number allowing Gulpilil to showcase his dry humour as he greets the white officers, “Hey, white bastard!” who use him as an unpaid tracker. De Heer and Gulpilil have worked together three times now, and that comfort is evident where Gulpilil conveys all that aching rejection and hurt through his weathered face and physicality. When Charlie retreats to the city and devolves into alcoholism with other homeless Aboriginals, de Heer outlines the suspicion and racism that’s embedded in Australian culture when Charlie is thrown in prison. It’s these prison scenes that haunt, especially with Gulpilil’s input in the script with his own struggles, as Charlie’s wild hair is shorn as is his identity through the rigorous routine of prison life. It’s a movie that just have to seek out, because of its nuanced and heartbreaking look at identity and colonialism.
5. Foxcatcher – Although, Steve Carrell and Mark Ruffalo are receiving the lion’s share of acclaim for the twisted portrayal as millionaire John DuPont and the genial Dave Schultz respectively, it’s Channing Tatum who’s the beating heart of this aching paean to toxic male ego. Bennett Miller’s films “Moneyball” and “Capote” have been chilly and distant explorations of men drawn to challenges and controversy that only sometimes worked, but it’s that trademark detachment that works so shrewdly in Foxcatcher – it enhances DuPont’s distant menacing entitlement and Schultz’s interior life. Mark Schultz (Tatum) and DuPont (Carrell) are drawn to each other by that inner desire to transcend their trappings and live up to their self-image, and it’s the folly that Miller accurately skewers with dark moments of comedy. There’s the scene on a helicopter where Mark is stumbling on delivering his speech about Dupont’s virtues as a, “Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist…” as DuPont instructs him repeatedly with slurry relish. Like a Chekhov’s gun, DuPont opens up the cocaine and passed it to Schultz to try, it’s a loaded scene that subtly highlights DuPont’s desperation and worrying habits that may have lead to his isolation and paranoia later on.
4. Dear White People – Justin Simien’s incisive and hilarious debut is the emerging of a true talent that’s sorely been lacking in Hollywood. We urged you to see the film during its short run in cinemas in Canada, it’s prompted a thoughtful critique about race relations and white privilege for millenials in America, which no other film has done since perhaps Spike Lee’s School Daze. It’s crammed full of ideas that take on truthful stereotypes, daily micro-aggressions, as rebel Sam (Tessa Thompson) and nerdy reporter Lionel (Tyler James Williams) negotiate their black identities around their fellow white students and friends. Simien is keen to skewer Sam’s militant posturing, despite her biracial roots and love for Taylor Swift, and seems to side with Lionel feeling like he doesn’t fit in any social milieu: the gay artists or the black militants which is smartly depicted when he envisions himself mixing in both groups with ease. It’s an important film that we can hope isn’t an anomaly in smart satires about race and identity, which is why Simien shows such skill in tackling all the issues in case it’s the last breath of fresh air.
3. Boyhood – While other critics might harp on about the ingenuity of Richard Linklater filming this over 12 years, or the revolutionary experiment it was, I was more impressed at how Linklater captured the nuances of Gen X life from the music choices (Soulja Boy to Cobra Starship) to the shifting technology (chunky Apple computers and iPod minis). Linklater has assembled a stellar team of Ethan Hawke, and Patricia Arquette as the divorced parents to Lorelei Linklater and the eponymous boy Ellar Coltrane to make these ordinary moments of life come alive and resonant. Of course, we’ve all had different childhoods, mine was not the same as Mason’s (Coltrane), but there’s a universality to his experience that we’ve all encountered from terrible haircuts, teenage rebellion, first love, and that pretentious introspective phase we all go through. It’s a testament to Linklater’s skill that each year we see Mason age, the progression is natural from his voice cracking or his mother’s second divorce to his dad growing up; these changes jolt us only till the end when we bawl with his mother as she laments, “I just thought there would be more than this,” when Mason leaves for college. It’s both an ingenious experiment and cinematic document, but it’s almost like a time capsule for my generation as we watch the fad toys, crazy fashion styles, and angsty teenage moments that were stepping stones to our own adulthood.
2. Queen – It’s amazing that in 2014, a Bollywood film like Queen feels so revolutionary for showing a jilted bride discovering her identity away from a hero, parents, or social structures. Vikas Bahl and Kangana Ranaut worked on the script to create a fully-realized and nuanced woman whose coming of age is spurred by understanding her own motivations, likes, and personality while travelling Europe solo on her ‘honeymoon.’ The two show us how Rani has taken her own needs for granted whether its agreeing to give up work after marriage or being escorted everywhere by her little brother that letting loose in Paris feels like such a victory. The film had me cheering for Rani every step of the way as she gained more independence and didn’t end up with her hunky Russian friend, her regretful fiance (Rajkummar Rao), or the Italian man who’s her first kiss. That spirit of rebellion was so stunningly realized when Rani gets drunk, dances on the tables, but remembers a moment where her fiance admonishes her dancing and embarrasses him. In the next moment, the mise en scene is just perfect with Rani dancing defiantly in slow motion to the pulsating electro beats of Amit Trivedi’s fabulous remix of “Hungama Ho Gaya.” Bahl and Ranaut punctuate Queen with small victories for Rani as she moves from naif to an independent woman.
1. Haider – Hamlet tends to be one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, especially in its current iterations as “Hamlet on bikes” with Sons of Anarchy and “Hamlet in Kashmir” with Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider, a violent and political retelling. Haider is one Bharadwaj’s finest adaptations of the Bard’s material, since he manages to transpose it to the chilly and foreboding landscape of 90s Kashmir where violence and bloodshed are a daily occurrence to the desensitized locals, who do their best to get by with the military occupation and frequent disappearances of loved ones. Bharadwaj assembles his finest cast in years as the key players; Shahid Kapoor as the poet turned revolutionary, Kay Kay Menon as the political leader Khurram/Claudius, Tabu as the conniving half-widow Ghazala/Gertrude, Shraddha Kapoor as the devoted Arshia/Ophelia, and Irrfan Khan the quietly witty Roohdar/The Ghost. Shahid Kapoor offers a taut and intense turn as Haider devolves into madness, and he masters the infamous speech “To be or not be.” It’s a stunning performance that allows to use his dancing prowess and physicality to convey the anger in the meta-climax song “Bismil.” Bharadwaj also highlights the incestuous love between Haider and Ghazala in such a bold and shocking way, which turns all the Bollywood maa cliches on its head with Tabu and Shahid’s chemistry. Haider is definitely one of the best adaptations of Hamlet, which deserves its rightful place in the film canon alongside Bharadwaj’s Othello and Macbeth.