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Birdman And Other Top 2014 Films (Part 2)

The Top 2015 Films list hasn’t gotten to the compilation stage as there are still worthy contenders such as Carol which need to be screened. Until then, here’s a much-belated look back at Birdman and other familiar and obscure films which were highlights of this writer’s 2014.

10.  Class Enemy

One of the joys of film festival patronage is discovering incredible films which might not be deemed commercial enough for distribution. Rok Bicek’s powerful film, which played the Cinequest Film Festival, is an example of that phenomenon.  Bicek’s Slovenian drama didn’t pit workers against owners.  Instead, the combatants are the members of a high school German class on one side and a coolly judgmental substitute teacher on the other side.  The spark for the conflict, a personal tragedy, gets eclipsed by responses that morph from reasonable to spectacularly disproportional. By the film’s end, the audience is left challenged to ask themselves if they could have displayed better judgment in the film’s scenario.

9.  The Selfish Giant

Clio Barnard’s heartbreaking drama had its only Bay Area theatrical screening at the Mostly British Film Festival before going straight to home video. This fate is not a reflection of the quality of Barnard’s film. The Selfish Giant, whose title comes from an Oscar Wilde fable, deals with the disturbing question of whether a person’s life choices can really be condemned if only bad or nonexistent options are available. 

Arbor and Swifty are working class friends. To most of the adults in their lives, the two boys are unmitigated delinquents. But to the criminal scrap metal dealer Kitten, one of the boys is a potential money maker. Kitten’s interest slowly creates a wedge in the bond between the two boys, which eventually leads to tragedy.

Barnard’s film works because she doesn’t sand off Arbor’s and Swifty’s more abrasive behavior in a bid for audience sympathy.  Instead, her film argues that their rough edges shouldn’t be an excuse to deny them audience empathy.

8.  Night Moves

Trust Meek’s Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt to grippingly undermine the thriller genre. Three ecological extremists (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) conspire to blow up an Oregon hydroelectric dam.  But the film deals with more than the adrenaline rush of seeing whether the conspirators’ plot succeeds or not. The director’s love of observing character asserts itself here by showing that trying to blow up a dam has consequences which act as Miracle Gro for a person’s worst personality traits.

7.  Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)

Superhero cinema gets entertainingly married to theater backstage hijinks in Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu’s Oscar-winning comic drama. Nervous tension is jerry-built into the film via a familiar plot countdown to a high-stakes Broadway theatrical opening. Having a pounding jazz drum score and a constantly roaming camera captures the sense that the barely-suppressed anxiety of Michael Keaton’s Riggan has been turned up to 11. Gonzalez-Inarritu pushes Birdman beyond melodrama by making the camera serve as the ultimate unreliable narrator. Obvious fantasy describes scenes where Birdman talks to Riggan or superhero firefights take place against the New York City skyline. But how should one interpret embarrassing events that seem plausible yet convey a sense of unreality in their occurrence? Perhaps that blissful sense of ignorance alluded to in the subtitle of Birdman might help viewers focus on the story and its resolution.   

6.  The Missing Picture

Rithy Panh’s powerful documentary offers his own personal account of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal reign over Cambodia’s people. His film delivers a unique answer to Alain Resnais’ challenge in Night And Fog on the inability of film to convey the scope of genocidal behavior. Dioramas and hand-sculpted clay figures illustrate the horrors of the period without overwhelming the viewer. This medium also implicitly criticizes the Khmer Rogue’s censorship of ideas and images that challenged the “Paradise On Earth” self-image of their remaking of Cambodian society. Panh’s film reminds viewers that the physical medium for preserving history matters less than whether what’s preserved honestly honors human memory.

5.  Ida

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Academy Award-winning black-and-white film is one of those dramas whose placid surface conceals deep emotional depths. Ida is the real name of orphaned novitiate Anna. As she learns from cynical worldly judge Wanda, she’s actually a Jew whose parents disappeared in the Polish countryside during World War II. The quest of the two women to discover the fate of Ida’s parents ultimately becomes a personal Rumspringa for the prospective nun. Anna/Ida must ultimately choose what life she will embrace in early 1960s Poland. Her final decision is rendered via a marvelous use of visual storytelling.

4.  Norte, The End Of History

Lav Diaz’ long-form epic makes generous use of telling shots to capture its characters’ unstated feelings. Loosely adapting the Dostoevsky classic Crime and Punishment to a Philippine setting, the director follows the divergent fates of two men bound by a murder. Former law student turned nihilistic cynic Fabian murders an old money lender.  But it’s poor innocent JR who winds up serving a life sentence for Fabian’s crime.  The film’s broad canvas of time passing and the differing fates of Fabian and JR slowly allow the true natures of the two men to ultimately emerge.  Mixing occasional shocking moments with political and philosophical polemics, Diaz’ film winds up being a film that will spawn healthy post-screening arguments.

3.  Agnes Varda: From Here To There

The pruning of an old tree in the opening credits of this French TV documentary mini-series aptly symbolize its themes of impending death and renewal. Director/narrator Agnes Varda entertainingly develops those themes through two strands. One concerns her encounters accompanying a worldwide traveling retrospective of her films. The other strand follows Varda’s seeking out and discovering new contemporary art. The legendary French New Wave director’s bemusement at receiving career awards for her body of work gets complemented by such joyful moments as Varda’s seeing her avatar dance in Second Life.  Familiar subjects from The Beaches of Agnes make onscreen appearances. They include actor/filmmaker Zalman King, New Wave filmmaker Chris Marker, and Varda’s cat Zgougou.  Genial unpredictability has never had a more enthralling guide.

2.  Under the Skin

In director Jonathan Glazer’s superbly disturbing science fiction/horror hybrid, men and women have needs so divergent they can’t be considered brothers (or sisters) under the skin. Discordantly screeching music turns disconcerting the process of the sexual chase. Star Scarlett Johansson makes unforgettably tragic her enigmatic alien’s transformation from business-like hunter into star-crossed pursuer of human existence.

1.  Boyhood

The film that sped past Birdman to the top spot is, deliberately or not, an answer film to Michael Apted’s famed “Up” documentary series. Instead of following a person’s life in seven-year leaps, director Richard Linklater chooses to follow the life of one boy over a 12-year period. What propels this drama into the top spot is partly the dedication displayed by the filmmaker and his actors (including Rosanna Arquette and Ethan Hawke) as we see the family at this film’s center slowly age. Cultural signifiers such as a Harry Potter film opening may come and go. What truly embodies seeing a life’s formation is witnessing the joys and pains large and small that ultimately translate into experience and learning. Linklater makes the viewer honored to be that witness.

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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