My Top 20 2014 Films: A Quirky Countdown (Part 1)

Sorry sexist online trolls, but Guardians of the Galaxy was not the greatest film of 2014 in my books.  Nor does hearing right-wing sorts claiming watching The Interview was a patriotic mandate cut any ice with me…even before factoring in the Asian stereotypes factor.

The fond memories of my 2014 in cinema came from being exposed to forgotten French film noir at the Roxie or catching a documentary about a mute visitor to foreign lands, a screening that was part of the S.F. DocFest.  The following countdown constituted the best of everything I had a chance to see in the cinemas.  Sadly, absent from consideration were such titles as Blue Ruin, Only Lovers Left Alive, and even The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Admittedly, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dancing Baby Groot provided a moment’s amusement.  But the films listed here offered much more.

20.  Cold In July

Director Jim Mickle adapted mystery novelist Joe R. Lansdale’s  story of an ordinary East Texas man’s shooting of a home burglar and how it spirals into an orgy of violence and deception.  Making Lansdale’s tonal shifts of suspense, dark humor, and even horror work as a seamless whole is not an easy task.  But Mickle did it.  A trio of strong performances from Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson grounded the film.  Johnson delivered a particularly memorable turn as a hog farmer/private eye.  Consider Cold In July Mickle’s cinematic preview for his next project: adapting Lansdale’s beloved Hap and Leonard crime novel series to TV.

19.  Wetlands

2014’s best controversial comedy was David Wnendt’s button-stabbing adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s sex-comedy novel.  Carla Juri’s performance as 18-year-old protagonist Helen Melem made this body fluid-obsessed and hygiene-indifferent gal a sort-of sweet character with a spectacular imagination.  One couldn’t help but cheer Helen’s sexual openness even as her home-made tampons sparked cringing.   Also, remember not to let young Ms. Melem near barbecue tongs or call in a pizza delivery order.

18.  The Circle

Stefan Haupt’s Teddy award-winning mixture of documentary and dramatic recreation revived a forgotten bit of gay history.  In post-World War II Zurich, schoolteacher Ernst Ostertag became a member of the international homophile society known as The Circle.  Through the group’s gatherings, Ostertag met the man who would be his eventual partner, cabaret singer Robi Rapp.  The documentary interviews with Ostertag and Rapp offered fascinating details about how ingenious legal stretching allowed The Circle to flourish.  The recreations of The Circle’s parties and events subtly reminded the viewer why they couldn’t be captured on film at the time.  Compared to America’s post-World War II treatment of the gay community, Zurich may have seemed a relative bastion of tolerance.   Yet as Haupt showed viewers, tolerance could never  acceptably substitute for full legal and social equality.

17.  Zero Motivation

The mind-numbing nature of Office Hell provided grist for Talya Lavie’s award-winning comedy.   Monotonous tasks such as shredding giant bags of confidential documents don’t become meaningful because they’re done for the Human Resources office of an Israeli Defense Forces desert outpost.  Slacker lead character Zohar displayed greater interest in racking record Minesweeper scores.  If Zohar’s game obsession seemed as pointless as her office tasks, at least that obsession was a pointless act she could enjoy.

16.  Rich Hill

Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos’ heartbreaking documentary showed how one lived with poverty in America.  Instead of lecturing viewers, the film immersed them in the lives of its three subject teenagers.  Understanding what an impoverished life in America meant involved more than seeing subject Andrew’s noble suffering.  It was also understanding how lack of economic opportunities and community resources shaped the troubled lives of subjects Harley and Appachey.  This Sundance Film Festival award-winner showed that equating poverty with moral character evaded a communal responsibility to actually deal with eradicating poverty.

15. Jodorowsky’s “Dune”

Documentaries about cinematic might-have-beens are not exactly virgin subject matter.  Frank Pavich’s utterly entertaining documentary distinguished itself with its anecdotes about the sometimes gonzo acts cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) took to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune into a feature film.  Jodorowsky’s talent list for the prospective film included H.R. Giger and Orson Welles.  Animated realizations of  script scenes tantalized with feelings of lost promise.  In such an entertainingly mad creative hothouse, Jodorowsky’s willingness to pay an actor $10,000 a minute for his services made a certain sense.

14.  Stranger By The Lake

Where did sexual desire end and a personal death wish begin?  That question underlay Alain Guiraudie’s sexy French thriller.  The film’s setting was a bucolic country lake used as a gay cruising spot.  Protagonist Frank, who regularly cruises the lake, found himself torn between lust for the handsome Michel and burgeoning terror at the growing likelihood that Michel murdered his previous lover.  Guiraudie ultimately challenged the viewer’s boundaries regarding satisfying personal desire versus accepting personal culpability.

13.  Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-Ho’s science fiction actioner was one of the two best comic book adaptations of the year.  The director retained the original French graphic novel’s setting of a train carrying the last remnants of humanity across a frozen Earth.  Where the film transcended its source was in pointing out that even after the end of the world, humanity would probably be unwilling to surrender its class divisions.  An actioner with something to say besides bang bang shoot shoot, this entertainingly cynical film benefitted greatly from Tilda Swinton’s performance as the alternately nasty and patronizing Minister Mason.

12. We Are The Best!

2014’s other best comic book adaptation came from Lukas Moodysson’s adaptation of his wife’s graphic novel.  Pre-teen protagonists Bobo, Klara, and Hedwig formed a punk rock band in 1980s Stockholm not because they wanted to pursue rock star dreams.  Their band provided them with a refuge from the bullying and putdowns they’ve had to live with all their lives.  The three girls would probably never become Johnny Rotten’s heirs.  But at least they demonstrated that age was never a barrier to flying one’s punk rock flag.

11.  A Field In England

Ben Wheatley’s English Civil War-set horror tale went light on the onscreen gore.  However, it went heavy on the malevolent undercurrents of its period.  The film’s war deserters had a sense of being pawns of larger forces which cared little for their welfare.  Whether it was ducking whizzing bullets or seeing the effects of supernatural torture, the forces in question managed to intimidate its characters.  Who could have conceived of magic mushrooms as a key to political liberation from such forces?

The upper half of this countdown will feature films dealing with: travels around the art world, answer films to Alain Resnais and Michael Apted, and a callback to the Polish New Wave.

About the Author

I'm a film reviewer for the Beyond Chron blog. Agnes Varda and Hirokazu Kore-eda are among my favorite filmmakers. I occasionally break down and watch a good action film...but don't tell anyone.

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